THE PAPERBOY is a superbly trashy tawdry movie in the best tradition of the Southern Gothic. Set in a late 60s bumblefuck town in Florida, the movie opens with a racist obese cop having his guts eviscerated in a parking lot and closes with a sunkissed teen ferrying brutalised bodies over an alligator swamp. In between, we're going to see a convicted murderer command his infatuated fiancée to simulate oral sex in front of the journalists trying to prove him innocent. We're going to see that same fiancée pee on the sunkised teen lashed by a jellyfish. We're going to see his elder brother brutalised in a sadomasochistic act in which he might have been complicit. And we're going to see a man rip the guts out of a gator as if it ain't no thang.
In all this craziness, it's questionable where our focus is really meant to be? Are we really meant to care about proving the innocence of creepy Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack)? To be sure, reporters Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley (David Oyewolo) do some investigating but I never really got a hold of what they were meant to be uncovering and how it got him released, or even why Ward was so convinced of his innocence after the way he talked to his fiancée Charlotte (Nicole Kidman). (I figured Yardley never cared one way or another, just so long as he got to publish something.)
No, the focus of the movie seemed to be far more on kid brother Jack (Zac Efron), his infatuation with Charlotte (so slippery for the narrator to keep calling it love), and his unending loyalty to his brother, despite everything that he saw in that plastic sheeted motel room. There are moments between Ward and Jack, amid the garish grotesquery, that are so intimate and authentic they make you realise how rare it is to see true sibling love on screen. I'm thinking of a snatched conversation on the banks of a swamp - and the way in which Ward cradles a drunken Jack as they sail out to see Charlotte in the movie's final act. And let's be honest, the flash of anger in which Jack uses the N-word in front of his beloved housemaid, Anita (Macy Gray) and then makes up with her says so much more about the reality of race relations in that period than THE HELP ever could.
So, while THE PAPERBOY might fail as a conventional investigative procedural, while it's focus might be fuzzy, it succeeds like no film I know in holding us rapt - just waiting to see what on earth could happen next to these characters that, after all, we have come to care about. Because, yes, I did want the oversexed trailer trash prison groupie to be happy. And I did care about Jack and Ward, and wince every time someone mistreated Anita.
I love the way that Lee Daniels (PRECIOUS) and DP Roberto Schaeffer's Super 16mm photography and impeccable production design make the movie jump off the screen. I love the way we can feel the sweat, and the taste the dirt and smell the filth. And I have to say that as much as Nicole Kidman got a lot of award season glory this really is an ensemble cast that has no shame, no pride and every willingness to look trashy in service of the story. I guess we've come to expect this from Matthew McConaughey who's reinvented himself as the king of sleaze, but I was shocked at John Cusack's transformation. Macy Gray is also wonderful as Anita, in one of the rare examples of a narration that really works.
THE PAPERBOY played Cannes and Toronto 2012 and was released last year in Croatia, the USA, Belgium, France, Canada, Israel, Russia, Bulgaria, Greece and Portugal. It opened earlier this year in Poland, Lebanon, Finland and Australia. It opens this weekend in the UK and Ireland, in Chile on April 4th, in Mexico on April 5th, in Turkey on April 12th and in Argentina on May 9th.
THE PAPERBOY has a running time of 107 minutes and is rated R in the USA.