In his follow up to 2010’s critically acclaimed Precious, Lee Daniels delivers another gritty and gut-wrenching story of family, racism, and various kinds of love—misguided and perverted, to be sure. The Paperboy, about a pair of brothers living in 1960’s rural Florida, one of which an acclaimed journalist, who seek to uncover the mystery surrounding the death of a local sheriff, features superb acting, at times a disjointed plot, and a lot of torment.
So it fits right in. Most tended to agree that his last film was powerful, but it was heart-breaking and soul-crushing to watch. Daniels eases off that a bit, but only a bit. It is still a sweaty and seedy film, one that often makes you feel dirty, and succeeds at doing this by lulling you into a false sense of security by way of pretty smiles, chiseled bodies, and kicky music.
Reporter Ward James (Matthew McConaughey) heads home from the big city of Miami with his elitist colleague Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) in tow, to see how a backwoods townie came to be convicted of murdering a disliked sheriff. He reunites with his idealistic, mature, and sexually repressed brother Jack (an often shirtless Zac Efron), and the trio, all writers, soon meet the bedazzling Charlotte Bless.
Nicole Kidman is captivating as Ms. Bless, a sexually-charged and love-hungry southern blonde who has an affinity for short dresses. She writes men in prison, looking for a suitor, and after contacting the alleged murderer, she falls for him. That ‘him’ is a greasy and crass gent who resides in the swamps by the name of Hillary Van Wetter, played by a less-than-adorable John Cusack.
An impressive Macy Gray rounds out the stellar cast as the Ward’s housekeeper, and the narrator of the story, recounting matter-of-factly the sordid tale. The moment Ms. Bless- a fittingly name for someone so generous as you will see- steps on the scene, the men notice and Jack’s life is upended. He is too mature for his age he says, but clearly impractical when it comes to the ways of love, and clearly naïve when it comes to the ways of life.
Jack, the only innocent one, does not stay innocent for long. His body undergoes physical violations, his eyes witness horrible acts of depravity, and the world into which he delves is one he cannot forget.
Daniels makes amends for some minor plot holes with a strange balance between the hilariously absurd, and the grotesquely unnerving. They tend to follow one another, and in that, there is meaning. Lucidity abuts darkness.
Nothing is as different as it appears to be in the film, as no one’s better angels are too far removed from their inner demons. The movie is about guilt, yes, but also about the need for some people to feel guilt. Ms. Bless, Ward, Yardley, and sleazy Hillary all have secret pasts, but they also choose to continue on the same path, satisfying their desires, descending more and more into the abyss.
The dark movie is not for the faint of heart, however glossy and colourful some scenes are, however catchy the music is, and however playful brothers Jack and Ward are. Those that we know, we may not know as well as we think; and that goes for ourselves, too.