There are few films that can lay claim to being quite so lurid and sultry as Lee Daniels’ infamous Cannes foray The Paperboy (2012) – which makes it all the more delicious to sample. Set deep within the humid bayous of southern Florida, this sexually-charged guilty pleasure stars Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and Nicole Kidman, and is a remarkable delight from start to finish. McConaughey plays Ward Jansen, a journalist with a talent for sniffing out stories about injustice which leads him back to his home turf after he is contacted by Charlotte Bless (Kidman), the trailer trash girlfriend of a death row convict.
The murderer in question is the yokel-toned Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), who has been convicted of the brutal murder of a local sheriff. Helping Ward out on the case are his partner, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), an African American journalist with a bad temper, and his kid brother Jack (Efron), who has aspirations of also becoming a write. The tale is narrated by the Jansen’s housekeeper, Anita (Macy Gray), who curdles out her lines with an over-emphasised twang, yet still manages to generate an incredible degree of sympathy, tapping into the racial themes of the movie, whilst also in contrast to Yardley’s ire. However, the real talent behind The Paperboy lies in its central cast.
Kidman is a dayglow revelation as Charlotte, complete with tangerine tan, brush-backed bleach blonde locks and lathered in blusher, oozing dark sexuality at every turn. Cusack, meanwhile, kindles our bile, instantly channelling a Charles Manson-like vibe with his barbarous, slack-jawed drawl and penetrating black eyes – giving the appearance of one of the deadly alligators that infest the local swamps. Efron’s Jack is the perfect contrast to Van Wetter, conveying a child-like quality (as usual) as he billows under the weight of adolescent sexual frustration. We see him kicking the barn door, tired of being the dogsbody to both his older brother and father who runs a local rag, whilst being fascinated by Bless’ raw sexuality.
It is McConaughey, however, who was born for Daniels’ movie, channelling some of the darkness we saw in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2011), offering up yet another impressive performance as the dogged journo. Ultimately, The Paperboy is to be enjoyed for its ultra-camp performances, so delightfully hammy and over the top that they swiftly become mesmeric. Wild directorial flourishes, such as the grainy 1960s film stock aesthetic, enhance the thick-aired heat of tale, submerging you into a world laced with constant injustice. However, whilst Daniels tackles the themes of race and equality head on, they’re ultimately pushed under by the film’s greasy, fattening melodrama.
Is there a purposeful statement underneath all the trash talk and push-up bras, as we saw with his previous effort, 2009’s Precious? No, not really. Is there a sense of irony from Daniels? Definitely not. Yet it seems lady luck is on the divisive American director’s side – quite by accident, he may have just made a minor cult classic, supplemented further by several incredible performances from a starry cast. Ignore what the critics said within the heated bubble of Cannes – The Paperboy is more than worthy of your time and money, jellyfish and all.