Florida, 1969. Returning to his small hometown, reporter Ward Jansen (McConaughey) investigates the case of Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack), who’s facing Death Row for the alleged murder of a local sheriff. Along with his writing partner Yardley (Oyelowo), Ward is helped by his younger brother Jack (Efron) and convict groupie Charlotte (Kidman), who’s been corresponding with Van Wetter through letters. Matters are complicated, however, when Jack falls for Charlotte…
Though not quite the trainwreck that its kicking at Cannes suggested, The Paperboy doesn’t know what it wants to be. Sexual coming of age tale, bayou crime thriller, period race drama, it’s all of these things and none of these things. As a sleazy Southern noir which involves Matthew McConaughey, family dysfunction, fried chicken and acts of sexual depravity, you could draw comparisons with Killer Joe, while the sweaty, swampy setting also brings to mind Wild Things. A case could be made that there are also shades of The Lincoln Lawyer and The Help. But while Lee Daniel’s adaptation of Pete Dexter’s novel includes racism, journalism, sexuality, capital punishment, public masterbation, Alligator skinning and copious shots of Zac Efron in his pants, it does so in a way which feels like we’re flitting between different movies.
Often making for uncomfortable, queasy viewing, The Paperboy is also similar to Killer Joe in that it’s quickly become infamous thanks to a memorably provocative scene. We see some trouser-moistening excitement from John Cusack (channelling Nicholas Cage in his best role for years), but the film’s real talking point is the sequence in which a squatting Nicole Kidman pees over Efron after he’s been stung by a jellyfish. Now there’s a sentence you probably didn’t think you’d ever read. The cast are excellent, mind you, with Kidman (as a white trash slut) and Efron particularly impressive. Macy Gray (yes, that Macy Gray) also features as the Jansen’s maid, while providing the film with a mumbling, fairly redundant voiceover.
Though not quite the trainwreck that its kicking at Cannes suggested, The Paperboy doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. A sort-of Killer Joe meets Wild Things, the performances are great, though, and anyone who likes the sight of Zac Efron in his pants will be in heaven.