‘The Paperboy’ is the story of Hillary van Wetter, a bloated Southern sleezeball played by John Cusack who is awaiting the electric chair for killing an obese racist sheriff. While in prison femme fatale Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) writes him, and soons falls for him. She convinces two newspapermen Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) to re-investigate the homicide in order to prove van Wetter’s innocence. Charlotte, Ward Jansen and his brother, Jack (Zac Ephron) visit him in prison in one of the film’s raw scenes.
Jack prances around in shorts or underwear as a clearly homoerotic character. Yardley is (erotically) disturbed by him but Jack falls for Charlotte Bless. The seductive blonde with a brittle wig and heavy eye makeup tells Jack she has a dark side where his good looks and nature do not fit.
Van Wetter does nothing but abuse Charlotte from the minute he meets her in prison and when he gets out. As far as the other lead characters, Ward accepts an offer to have sex with some local black men, not the first time, but gets badly roughed up. Macy Gray is Zac’s beloved nanny but that position of privilege soon ends when his father (Scott Glen) starts to see the provincial albeit racist Ellen Guthrie (Nealla Gordon).
The connection between sexism, homophobia, classicism and racism is interconnected throughout the film. ‘The Paperboy’ no doubt shows the roots of oppression. Cinematographer Roberto Shaefer (‘Monster’s Ball’) constructs each shot of the misé en scene (composition of the frame) There are also some montage elements by Joe Klotz (‘Precious’) that will clearly jolt in the spectator. These images are disturbing and pull the film away from the traditional thriller genre, which critics expected.
The raw edges of the film are not entertaining. This lack of feel good put off some of the press at Cannes where it had its international film debut in May, but for others it was a cinematic triumph.
Lee Daniel’s ‘The Paperboy’ is an excellent, well-crafted narrative that seems to turn upside down everything you thought a film might be about set in the south. It opens in San Francisco at the Landmark Theaters at Embarcadero October 5.