Blood and gore. Sex and violence. Murder and mayhem. Yep. It's a Lee Daniels' movie. "The Paperboy," open in theaters today is a haunting film by the Philadelphia native who received a Best Director Oscar nomination in 2010 for "Precious," the stark drama which earned Mo' Nique the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Based on bestselling novel by former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Pete Dexter ("Mulholland Falls," "Rush") and inspired by a true story, "The Paperboy" is directed by Daniels, who also makes his feature film-writing debut.
This creepy and compelling story takes place in backwaters of South Florida during the summer of 1969, and is told in flashback through Anita (Macy Gray), a housekeeper who cooked and cleaned for the Jansen family and cared for Jack and Ward Jansen from the time they were little boys and their mother abandoned them.
Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) is a reporter for the Miami Times, and comes home to investigate the murder of a corrupt local sheriff, who has killed a lot of Blacks during his two years of "service." "Someone got fed up with his fat ass and killed him. That's what happened," Anita says in her testimony.
When Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a depraved swamp dweller with no conscience, claims to have been framed for the murder, Ward and his writing partner, a fastidious Brit named Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), recruit Ward's younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), who has been kicked out of college and has no idea what he wants to do with his life, to be their driver while they investigate Van Wetter's claims. They also make use of the unique "skills" of Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) who has a bizarre hankering for death row inmates.
The suspense is unrelenting in this sexually and racially-charged festival of dysfunction,
and ironically, it's Gray's lackluster, down-home delivery that makes her narrative so effective, as the action shifts from the well-heeled mansion where the Jansen patriarch sips mint juleps with his gold-digging fiance', to the dark, dismal swamp where rednecks spend their time gutting gators, and the kids run around dirty and barefoot. Speaking of dirt, as the investigation unfolds, we discover that Ward has some dirty secrets of his own.
Zac Efron somehow manages to make Jack, an unmotivated, confused slacker, quite engaging, and the mutual devotion that he shares with Anita is the foundation of the film. The scenes between the two of them are warm and sincere, even when Jack, in a moment of anger, lashes out at Yardley with the "N" word.
The role of Charlotte was a bold undertaking for the ethereal Kidman, who must get down and dirty, and shed her every inhibition in order to play the trashy trollop that seduces poor Jack simply because that's what she does. Such are the demands that the daring Daniels places on his actors, and I found that Kidman, Efron, and Gray as well as Cusack in a smaller role, were particularly effective in rising to the challenge.
While Lee Daniels is obviously drawn to morbid tales, he sometimes goes a bit too far out of his way to shock people. You can shock folks without making them feel like vomiting. Even so, Daniels does what he does very well, and fans of murder mysteries and suspense will find "The Paperboy," which features the original song "(Loving Him Is) Dangerous" by Philly musician/composer Bill Jolly, is absolutely captivating. (Rated "R")