If you weren’t already convinced that Florida is the most deranged state in the south–and perhaps all the U.S.–The Paperboy will surely sway your opinion completely. Set in August 1969, the film, based on Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel, paints a seedy portrait of a small town in Moat County. Beginning at the end of the saga, the gruesome tale is told from the perspective of Anita Chester (Macy Gray, who has given Octavia Spencer a run for her money in this role). As a man interviews her about a recent book that came out, called Summer Now, detailing the events surrounding the murder of the Moat County sheriff, Thurmond Call (Danny Hanemann), she flashes back and narrates the tale of how two brothers, Jack Jansen (Zac Efron, a long way from High School Musical) and Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), came to be involved in defending the man accused of killing Sheriff Call, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack, taking sleaze to a new high).
Naturally, what The Paperboy really comes down to is Nicole Kidman’s performance as Charlotte Bless. Oozing an unabashed aura of white trash chicness, Jack—almost twenty years her junior—falls instantly in love with what Anita deems her “oversexed Barbie doll” look. Her connection to Hillary stems from her favorite pastime, writing to prison inmates. Although she is used to enthusiastic responses from the prisoners she targets, it is Hillary’s heartfelt letters dubbing her an “angel” who can save him that makes her decide to become engaged to him. It also further convinces her that Hillary is not guilty of murdering the sheriff. Ward’s attraction to Hillary’s case leads him to reluctantly return to his hometown from Miami with his writing partner, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo). Now a successful journalist, Ward’s father, who runs the local paper, welcomes his stay with open arms, hoping it will be a positive influence on Jack, recently kicked out of college for draining the school’s pool (I suppose, as a swimmer, he thought it might be acceptable), and forced to spend his time delivering newspapers for their father.
Lee Daniels’ directorial methods (immortalized in Precious, as well as his attachment to Monster’s Ball as the producer) consistently and aggressively attack your visual and aural senses. The sound editing is one of the most memorable elements about the film, particularly during a scene in which Jack is attacked by a slew of jellyfish and struggles in and out of the water to get away from them (creating the opportunity yet again for Kidman as Charlotte to steal the show by urinating all over him). Visually, every scene exudes a sultry aura, most notably during one of Jack’s daydreams of Charlotte running out of her apartment in a wedding dress to come meet him. And then, of course, there is the scene in which Charlotte, Yardley, Jack and Ward go to visit Hillary at the prison and Charlotte freely masturbates in front of Hillary so that he can still manage to cum with handcuffs on—making Sharon Stone’s notorious vag flash in Basic Instinct look like a 1940s Disney cartoon.
As the plot thickens (usually with blood), your sympathies for each character are prone to shift dramatically (except with Anita, who is enduringly likable). What this means from a screenplay standpoint is that co-writers Daniels and Dexter have achieved that rare feat: Creating a movie that maintains a literary air with its emphasis on theme and the frailties of human nature (a.k.a. this script could easily win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2013).
Pete Dexter’s willingness to make cinematic improvements to his novel is indicative of his ease with transitioning between the demands of author and screenwriter (Dexter also adapted the screenplay for his book, Paris Trout, in 1991 and wrote the script for Michael in 1996). Chief among the alterations is the fate of Ward, who dies in a much different, and possibly more tragic, manner—amounting to the most situational irony rendered to film that’s been seen in quite some time. Like the quintessential 1980s video game (even though said game lacks the article “the” before it), The Paperboy is filled with physical and emotional landmines and constant suspense.