Unreliable Delivery: Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012) – DVD review
They do things differently down South. Especially their films, deep-fried in atmosphere but with the rhyme and reason cut out and fed to the ‘gators.
(Lee Daniels, 2012)
Think of the Deep South, and a tumble of imagery emerges: languid, humid, racist, full of passion and ‘gators. Many films have taken advantage of this unique setting, from Live And Let Die to the complete works of Tennessee Williams. Lee Daniels, however, might have surpassed everybody. The Paperboy is as camp as James Bond and as florid as Williams. It is a delirious checklist of a Deep South film, as if Daniels was playing cliché bingo and made sure the bagged the full house.
In outline, The Paperboy is nothing new – a faintly twisty crime thriller about a reporter (Matthew McConaughey) investing a potential miscarriage of justice involving a condemned killer (John Cusack). Yet, in Daniels’ film, these two aren’t even the main characters. That honour goes to McConaughey’s kid brother (Zac Efron), a college drop-out who agrees to help out because he has the horn for the blowsy tart (Nicole Kidman) who has struck up a relationship with the killer. The dramatis personae already sounds bonkers, even before you factor in an effete black reporter with an affected English accent (David Oweleyo, the film’s best performance) and a maid/narrator played by Macy Gray.
The elements are so random, the tone so outré that it feels like a calculated masterplan to shake a whole genre out of its lethargy. Daniels specialises in visualising sequences that will haunt your subconscious for days afterwards because they are so wrong, from the moment where Kidman brings Cusack to an involuntary climax by simulating sex in a prison’s visitor room, to the notorious set-piece where she pisses on Efron’s character after he is stung by jellyfish. Just when you think you might have a handle on it, McConaughey goes missing and… well, you’ll see.
Daniels adopts a similar approach to theme. It isn’t a film about racism per se, but Daniels allows it to punctuate the action, a constant reminder that we’re in a world where even the heroes’ moral compass wobbles. So just about every character has secrets and unstated agendas but, as filtered through Efron’s doe-eyed innocent and Gray’s unreliable testimony, they remain enigmatic until the film’s end.
In the absence of a clear message, or indeed story, it’s best to treat this as a study of behaviour, and Daniels has created one hell of a zoo in which to keep his specimens. For starters, it’s hot – the bleached cinematography percolates with the drip-drip of sweat, and sanity goes walkabout in Daniels’ distinctive, odd direction. His blocking of actors is odd and inconsistent: flatly realistic one moment and then self-consciously staged the next. And then there’s the editing, which ignores key plot points via woozily elliptical flash-forwards that reinforce the sense of a story untethered by conventional plotting.
Put simply, it’s bonkers, to the point where it is hard to tell whether this is a cleverly directed film or a sloppily directed film. At least, until an OTT finale, where Daniels casts off any lingering doubt that this might be a subversive cult classic and settles for making overripe trash. The title is apt in one sense: this is a film that feels like it has been directed by a paperboy, lobbing ideas enthusiastically but haphazardly from a distance. Enough of these metaphorical ‘papers’ hit to make for an interesting viewing experience, but others fall so wide of the mark the film is ultimately no more than a curio.