The Paperboy – Lee Daniels delivers one of the craziest (and best) films you’ll see this year

Director Lee Daniels’ previous film, Precious, won critical acclaim and plenty of awards nominations firmly placing the director on the map as one to watch. Daniels follow-up film is The Paperboy, a sweat-soaked pulpy noir adaptation of Peter Dexter’s novel of the same name (who also wrote the screenplay with Daniels). Except this isn’t your average kitchen sink drama about people in a small town. The Paperboy is in fact an altogether different beast and one of the most outrageous and bizarre films you will see in a very long time. Precious this sure ain’t…

Set in the 60s in the sweltering Florida heat, reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his hometown to investigate the conviction of a man on death row called Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). Ward also enlists his partner and friend Yardley (David Oyelowo) to help with their extensive research into the circumstances of Hillary’s conviction. Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) is keen to be involved with the investigation as well, but is reduced to being their driver. This might not be so bad for Jack though when he realises one of the people he gets to chauffeur around town is the beautiful Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a woman who has never met Hillary but has nonetheless fallen in love with him through their correspondence to each other. Charlotte is certain of his innocence and is more than keen to do anything to help in their investigation so her man can finally walk free from jail…

While Daniels’ The Paperboy might at first seem wildly different to the uplifting tear-jerking drama that was Precious, it does in fact have a lot of similarities: set in the past, retro style, more than one nasty, untrustworthy character and an often distressing storyline. That being said this film is a lot bolder than Precious was, which is saying something considering the subject matter of that film. Things that were only hinted at in Precious are here thrown up onscreen for all to see. Sex and sensuality bleed from nearly every scene, mostly courtesy of the vixen that is Charlotte Bless. But this rampant heat is also a result of the warm orange-hued visual style used throughout which peppers the whole movie with a sweat-soaked atmosphere that draws you in as you watch.

One of the things that makes The Paperboy so memorable is a big stroke of dark humour that runs right through it. There are plenty of moments that will horrify you while making you laugh at the same time. Some of these hard-to-watch scenes even whipped up controversy when the film was shown at Cannes, mostly because of this uneasy combination of the comedy used alongside the gruesome. However I would argue that this is the whole point to Daniels film – it needs to shock so it reflects the outrageous and sometimes hilarious nature of all of these ambiguous, moralistically void characters. And besides this, the controversy for the one scene between Kidman and Efron that everyone has talked about doesn’t seem particularly well-founded in fairness. It is barely onscreen for a minute and is again more comedic than disgusting. However it is this method of mixing humour and drama that will determine whether you will enjoy Daniels’ film or not. If you can stand the uncomfortable moments and find funny in the hideous, then you’ll love it. If you are the type to be easily offended and disgusted, then don’t watch (although you are more than missing out).

The Paperboy also boasts a huge showcase of talent with an excellent ensemble cast who are more than up for taking part in this OTT humour. Matthew McConaughey dials it down a bit from when he played Killer Joe but is still riveting as Ward, especially for later scenes in which the case starts to weigh on him. David Oyelowo as Yardley, Ward’s partner in crime is also great and has some of the best and funniest lines as the Brit trying to get to grips with a strange country and its even stranger people (“Ward, there’s a horse in the parking lot”). And one performance that certainly comes as a surprise is Zac Efron who manages to wipe all memories of High School Musical from our minds. He gives a stunning performance as Jack, the boy trying to find his place in the world while growing up and becoming a man. Earlier on in the film he perfectly reflects the young man’s innocence, which he then gradually starts to show fading with Jack’s age and experience. John Cusack also creates one of the best characters he has ever played as Hillary, the man on death row. He is intense and terrifying to watch even when he is doing nothing more than staring at whoever is talking, the cogs slowly turning in his mind as he tries to figure them out.

However two of the best performances in The Paperboy come from the two female leads. Nicole Kidman, someone who I recently slated for her performance in Stoker, has altogether proved me wrong here. She gives an absolute career-best performance as Charlotte Bless. Kidman makes Charlotte a buxom femme fatale who oozes sensuality but who on occasion uses this to her own advantage. She might look naïve, but she is far from it. Kidman also handles the tough material competently, of which there is a lot of when it comes to her character. The other entirely different female in the story is Macy Gray as Anita, the Jansen’s maid. Anita could have just been a minor background character with no consequence being as how she doesn’t have much to do with the story (she narrates the tale to us but there is no other major part she plays in the narrative). But Gray’s impressive performance as Anita makes her the forefront of any scene she is in as the matriarchal figure to the Jansen men. Gray makes her a brilliant mix of quiet obedience and strong dominance, with a much-needed funny side to her as well.

The Paperboy is one of those sorts of films that has it all: great performances, unsettling drama, laughs (some awkward), striking style and a gripping narrative. Heat oozes through the imagery and the sensual storyline as we watch the mystery unfold and more than one life becoming embroiled in finding out the truth. Some people will find Lee Daniels’ blend of humour and shocking horror hard to swallow. But for everyone else this is an outrageously fun noirish thriller that will draw you in and never let go.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on March 30, 2013.

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