Even Matthew McConaughey or Zac Efron’s biggest skeptics may change their mind after director Lee Daniels’ (“Precious”) newest film, “The Paperboy.” The film is based on the novel of the same name by Peter Dexter, and is Daniels’ triumphant return to racy, southern film noir. Set in the early 1970s in the swamp-laced town of Latey, Fla., the film compellingly captures the dirty racial mysticism of that time and place.
Ward (McConaughey), an idealistic Miami Times reporter, returns to his hometown to investigate the conviction between Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) and the murder of the notorious Sheriff Thurmond Call. Ward is joined by his African-American writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) and femme fatale Charlotte (Nicole Kidman). However, the film’s protagonist is Ward’s younger brother Jack (Efron), an expelled college student who leads the group on their journey.
Having lost his mother at a young age, Jack becomes obsessed with Charlotte in an Oedipal passion. The relationship between Jack and Charlotte drives the movie’s plot — his innocence coupled with her sexual antics offer some true moments of hilarity. Later, when Jack is stung by a jellyfish, Charlotte shoos off a pair of girls who want to make the sting better by urinating on it. “If someone’s gonna pee on him,” she says, “it’ll be me,” and she proceeds to do just that.
But the film is not without flaws. The movie loses a lot of momentum during the middle portion, and while the climax is strong, the film may have already lost the interest of some viewers by that point.
The film’s real strengths are in its characters and their adventure. Charlotte knows the power of her sexuality, and her story shows how that power can ensure her survival. But it also shows how this same power can aggravate her weaknesses. Kidman does an excellent job in portraying Charlotte’s complex character: a woman who wants only love and protection but has also been destroyed by that desire.
Surprisingly, Efron plays the dreamy eyed, sex-obsessed Jack to great effect. He effectively conveys both the innocence of boyhood and the maturity that comes from being in a broken family. Jack’s love for his elder brother, his kindness and affection to his family maid Anita (Macy Gray), as well as his obsessive love for Charlotte, are all captured very well by the young actor.
McConaughey manages to hold his own as Ward, efficiently bouncing off Jack and Charlotte. But Ward’s internal anguish is not effectively conveyed, and it drags the movie down. Regardless, “The Paperboy” is an engaging, frightening, moving and at times brilliant film — albeit a difficult one to watch.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 4 print edition. Rohan Narula is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]