Director Lee Daniels follows his breakthrough hit Precious with The Paperboy, a trashy Southern exploitation thriller based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Pete Dexter. When idealistic journalist Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his hometown in Florida with writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), he plans to help exonorate death row inmate Hillery Van Wetter (John Cusack) on his conviction of murder. Using his brother Jack (Zac Efron) and Hillary’s pen-pal lover Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), he finds himself getting pulled into Van Wetter’s world. Things are further exacerbated by Ward’s hidden secret and Jack’s growing obsession with Charlotte.
Watching The Paperboy feels a lot like swimming in the swamps of Florida. It’s hot, sweaty, filthy and oddly enjoyable. It’s by no means a classic, but as we are introduced to each character, they present a new level of moral ambiguity and a fascinating, and in some case deeply disturbing, back story. There are bold choices by each of the actors and The Paperboy focuses mainly on Zac Efron and Matthew McConaughey, who are both excellent in their own right. Efron continues to prove his wide-eyed innocence is leaving him far behind and his natural charisma is reminiscent of a young McConaughey. Meanwhile the original article is enjoying something of a return to form in recent years and can add this superbly idealistic-yet-dark turn to those in Killer Joe and Magic Mike to help create a fantastic new era in his long catalogue of work. John Cusack plays completely against type as the disgusting and monosyllabic Van Wetter a man whose vile and disgusting, but whose guilt for murder may be in question.While Oyelowo proves his versatility once again as the morally bankrupt Yardley. Yet all four men are surpassed by the leading lady of the piece.
It is Kidman’s fierce independence and less-than-glamorous turn that stays long in the memory. The scene where she meets Van Wetter for the first time in an interview room is one of the more brave performances of any Hollywood A-lister in recent memory and it’s as titillating as it is revolting. Like a force of nature, Kidman’s performance scars the landscape of the narrative and may prove to be her finest work to date.
Director Daniels does a solid job at making the film seem as dirty and sticky with heat as Louisiana can be. Each scene ripples on the verge of sexual lust or violent outburst, but the individual moments do not create a complete film. It is a shame that its tone is often uneven. It veers from the sublime to the ridiculous moment-to-moment and the finale is as crass and overplayed as Kidman’s performance is subtle and magnificent.
The Paperboy is a mediocre exploitation-style thriller that is elevated from obscurity by its outstanding cast and is worth watching just to see Kidman’s transformation from her standard beautiful Hollywood icon to poisonous, manipulative deep South cougar. But strip that away and there is little nourishment from this trashy and melodramatic glorified b-movie.