“There’s snakes all around here,” says a reclusive swamp dweller with a Confederate flag in his yard. Takes one to know one. There are a lot of gators around here as well, and while he says this, he’s cutting one open. He sells alligator skin for a living, but for fun he steals, makes illegitimate babies and has people beaten up. This is Lee Daniels’ sweaty, depraved, ridiculous melodrama The Paperboy (2012), a movie so bold in its bad taste it inspired boos when it premiered at Cannes and Roger Ebert’s great line, “If this film had been in good taste, that would have been in bad taste.” It has a number of big stars playing against type who make the movie into a competition about who can chew up the most scenery. It contains racism, sexism, the death penalty, snakes both reptile and human, weird heterosexual sex, and weirder homosexual sex, and it shows a character urinate on another, but that, mercifully, is not part of the weird sex.
The movie is set in 1969 and tells the story of Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his brother Jack (Zac Efron). Ward is a journalist for the Miami Times and has come back to his hometown of Lately, Florida, to investigate the case of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), who is on death row for allegedly murdering a popular sheriff. Ward doesn’t think he did it, and he and Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), his aloof, hot-headed, British-accented partner are going to prove it. Into the mix comes Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a slinky white trash trollop with straw-yellow hair in one unkempt mess or another. Charlotte believes Van Wetter is innocent too, but she’s biased because she’s fallen in love with him and, somehow, has made an intense sexual connection all through the stream of letters they write to each other. She catches wind of Ward’s investigation and stops by the Jansen home and asks if there is anyone there who works for the Miami Times. “I do,” Jack immediately responds, instantly attracted to her. He delivers the paper in the neighborhood.
During the investigation the team will find out a lot about Van Wetter, even more about each other, and at least two of them will enter into sex with varying degrees of consent. This is a brutal movie, whose energy is only equaled by the depths of its wicked invention. Daniels, who also wrote the script with Peter Dexter, who wrote the novel, has proved himself with Shadowboxer (2005) and Precious (2009) as a storyteller of disturbed social fairy tales, taking narratives and twisting them to the level of grotesquerie. In The Paperboy he has taken a Gothic Southern nightmare and seeped it in the grainy grit of a grind house exploitation movie. The result is an uneven potboiler that has as much capacity to repulse as it does to excite.
Daniels does a delicate job of wading in the swamp with his characters without letting his movie get drowned. I can’t cite you moments of artistic highbrow, only its opposite, but Daniels, by presenting the trash faithfully and without an ounce of self-consciousness or worse, pious sermonizing, is able to avoid stinking too much like it. A low-camp schlock-fest like Piranha 3DD (2012) thinks the joke is that it knows it’s low-camp schlock. The Paperboy knows but will never tell its characters, and that’s what makes it almost tragic. These are these people’s lives, shown without irony, which is more than they deserve but better than we’d expect. To this scheme, Daniels adds an appropriate amount of restraint, showing he’s in control of his story. There’s a lot of racism in the movie, and a lesser film would either make it a joke or make the racists obvious monsters or buffoons. Daniels avoids both by showing the racists as they are and leaving the judgment to us.
Yardley’s British accent and open defiance elicit the ire of many of the whites around him who didn’t need an excuse to begin with. A government official glares at Yardley in front of a framed picture of George Wallace; there could hardly be a more damning indication of the character’s ignorant baseness than this, and Daniels is wise, in a movie where he’s pushing every other button, to handle this subject more subtly. Daniels stumbles a little in the handling of Anita (Macy Gray), the Jansens’ domestic servant, however, who narrates and is supposed to be the moral compass. Putting them up against a mirror of dignity only reveals how little the other characters have and has the effect of telling the emperor about his new clothes.
And those clothes certainly fit Charlotte, though they would be rejected by Frederick’s of Hollywood. This is a bizarrely sensual and wholly animalistic performance by Kidman, and yet it’s delicately measured to keep, if not our sympathies for a pathetic existence, our interest in it, even if it’s to ask, “What is wrong with this woman?” She seems exactly like the type of girl who would be drawn to the despicable Van Wetter and rebuke (though not totally) the more heroic Jack. She gives death row wives a bad name. Still, perhaps she and Van Wetter are made for each other. Simultaneous orgasm is a goal for any couple; that Charlotte and Van Wetter can achieve it from a distance and in public as they do during the movie’s most gloriously distasteful scene (and there’s competition for that title) is a vote in their favor.
McConaughey spent all of 2012 turning up in good performances in risky movies, and here he makes it a perfect three for three. After two decades on screen, McConaughey had carved a place out for himself playing a variation of two types: the snaky seducer or the conscientious lawyer (this theme is mixed in a number of roles where he begins as one and ends as the other). It’s as if he took twenty years of building this persona just so he could gloriously subvert it all in one year. His roles in Magic Mike (2012) and Killer Joe (2012), the latter of which The Paperboy resembles in its depraved tone, deconstructed the first, showing the dark side of temptation. His performance in The Paperboy is almost better in deconstructing the second McConaughey type. Here’s a journalist with a strong passion for the truth and justice, but he finds himself in a movie with all the integrity of a spittoon.
As for his convictions against the death penalty, the movie gives him Van Wetter, played disgustingly by Cusack in a symphony of crass vulgarity, who is a walking argument for the death penalty, innocent as he may be. Never let Sister Helen Prejean see The Paperboy, she might reconsider her stance.
Daniels has created an atmospheric bog that makes you sweat along with the broiling characters. It’s something akin to Lawrence Kasdan’s brilliant Body Heat (1981), except without that movie’s sense of decorum. I won’t apologize for enjoying The Paperboy, though I could understand anyone who found it vile. I found it vile as well but presented in a way that appealed to me. These people are beyond redeeming characteristics, but they’re not beyond our fascination. The Paperboy is a movie of the crash on the highway that you can’t help but look at.