I was really quite intrigued walking into The Paperboy (2012) at my local cinema the other day. I had heard strange and also really varied things about the film and was curious to see how it would play out.
After seeing the film I can see why the response was so varied, because it is quite the hodge-podge. It starts with a totally unnecessary framing device that achieves nothing, either at the start of the film or as it wears on. The film itself tells the story of a sweaty Southern summer in 1969 where a sheriff is murdered. The greatest achievement of the film is that it does really create this sweaty, Southern world and allow the viewer to really feel as though they are there. It is not always (or ever really) a nice place to be, there is a nightmarish atmosphere to the entire film. Perhaps it is the subtle undercurrent of Southern prejudice that runs through the film. It is nicely done, never an explicit focus of the film, but always in the background ready to flare up if the situation dictates. Nicole Kidman plays Charlotte Bless, a woman who writes letters to prisoners. She strikes up a particularly strong bond with Hillary Van Wetter played by John Cusack, who has been jailed for murdering the aforementioned sheriff. Also involved in this swirling summer are Matthew McConaughey, David Oyelowo and Zac Efron, doing a pretty darn good job here of shedding at least some of his High School Musical (2006) image. These three become involved in trying to discover if Hillary really did kill the sheriff.
Of the attention that the film has managed to garner, most of it has focused on its shock value, particularly a scene where Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron. I would argue that the film has a number of more shocking scenes, some of them very disturbing, but that none of them are really what the film is about. Indeed the film works best when it plays as a relationship drama, with interesting and real feeling alliances and rivalries springing up between the main players. Probably the most interesting of these circle around Efron’s Jack, with Kidman’s Charlotte and Macy Gray’s Anita. It is these relationship with enthral and intrigue the viewer, as perhaps the central mystery of the film should. Indeed once the characters of Jack and Charlotte separate, the film probably weakens a little. Technically the script can be praised and criticised. On one hand, a vast majority of the film’s characters are exceptionally well written. On the other, the film never works as the detective story it is trying to be throughout the first hour or so and the narrative is not focused enough for the film to be a great one.
Nicole Kidman’s performance in The Paperboy is as good as I recall seeing for a number of years. What on the surface at first seems like a standard ‘trashy’ woman, in the hands of Kidman evolves Charlotte into a nuanced character, simultaneously smart yet stupid, pulling all the strings yet powerless. Kidman plays it big, but it is a tribute to her skills that this ‘bigness’ never feels anything but genuine. The first time Kidman meets the killer she has been writing to in person, in lesser hands would have come off as farcical, but Kidman makes it ultra disturbing and also impossible to look away from. Whilst Kidman is incredible, essentially everyone is good in this. John Cusack is utterly chilling in what is a pretty small role. As mismatched but nicely written damaged brothers, both Efron and McConaughey excel. Indeed the only performance and character that lets the film down I think is David Oyelowo as Yardley. The character, a posh African-Englishman, never rises above the level of caricature, whilst all the other characters which could all have reached that level manage to avoid it. Oyelowo’s jarring and over the top performance does not help matters. As good as Nicole Kidman is and as surprising as Zac Efron is, the real revelation in the film is the performance by Macy Gray. If the singer has been in any films before, I have not seen them. As Anita, the family maid, she is a strong presence throughout the film, providing both social commentary and occasional comedy. The voiceover her character provides guides the film and fills in what the times were like, but is not overdone.
The Paperboy is at times very violent and shocking. It is not always successful at what it is trying to do. Perhaps as a symptom of not always knowing which direction to take the narrative. But it is definitely worth seeing, for Nicole Kidman’s stunning performance if nothing else.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs