Eldest son Ward Jansen is a star reporter for a Miami newspaper and has returned home with close friend Yardley to investigate a racial murder case. Younger brother Jack Jansen has returned home after a failed stint at university as a star swimmer. To help give his life some direction, Ward gives Jack a job on their investigation as their driver. But into the mix comes the fiancée of the imprisoned convict who stirs up confusing feelings of love and lust for the young Jack. Meanwhile, Ward and Yardley's investigation stirs up deep-rooted issues of race and acceptance which could cause serious consequences for everyone involved. Written by
Lee Daniels' follow-up to the powerful Precious is an atmospheric work of Southern Gothic, based on a novel by Pete Dexter. Some might be precious (!) about their favourite books, but great films have been made which bear little resemblance to their source material, as fans of Dr Strangelove will know. I wouldn't call The Paperboy great, but with weightless yawners like Hansel & Gretel and Oz currently clogging the cinema, its rawness and energy is like licking an electric fence. In a good way. Grainy, saturated and wilfully unfocused, The Paperboy is a reminder of the power of 2D.
Matthew McConaughey continues his resurgence, tapping into a hitherto hidden vulnerability. He plays Ward Jansen, a journalist who arrives in the back-of-beyond with his partner, Yardley (David Oyelowo). They're in town to write a story about the unlawful conviction of Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack). To entice him they employ Charlotte (Nicole Kidman, fearless), who's in love with Hilary, or the idea of Hilary. Finally, and centrally, there is scared, smouldering Jack Jansen, played by a very capable Zac Efron.
Jack wants to steal Charlotte away from all this: the alligator-gutters and the insufferable heat. Nicole thinks he knows nothing because he's young, but one of the films myriad themes is the value of youthful idealism: Jack is the only one of the main characters yet to plunge down a rabbit-hole of hopelessness and self-service. There is genuine affection on show, though, of the brotherly kind between Ward and Jack, and the motherly kind between Jack and Anita (a subtle and funny Macy Gray; further proof of Daniels' aptitude for bringing the best and least showy from musicians-turned-actors).
The film is ramshackle and imperfect - but this kind of works. It skitters along with little attention paid to the audience, with precise relationships between characters rarely spelled out, and chunks of action entirely elided. It's not quite as funny or bleak as the similarly southern-fried Killer Joe, but I do believe that The Paperboy has a more humanist agenda than William Friedkin's film, basically emerging on the side of people, broken as they often become.
Like Precious, this is a film containing difficult individual scenes, and a troubling ambivalence about whether we're investing in a set of real characters or peering at them through museum glass. But there's no doubt, when the camera starts rolling, that Daniels sets out to challenge his audience. In that respect, he has succeeded.
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