The Paperboy. Starring Matthew McConaughy, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, David Oyelowo, Scott Glen, Macy Gray. Directed by Lee Daniels. Rated MA 15+ (strong bloody violence, strong sexual content, coarse language) 108 mins.
Directed by Lee Daniel (Monster's Ball, Precious) and adapted from the novel of the same name by Pete Dexter (Paris Trout), The Paperboy is a character-driven thriller set in the backwaters of southern Florida in the late 1960s,during the last years of the nation-changing Civil Rights Movement.
Narrated in retrospect by a black woman called Anita (Macy Gray), The Paperboy begins with the murder of a local sheriff, Thurmond Call, whose alleged killer, a volatile man called Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) with a motive for revenge, is convicted of the murder and sentenced to the electric chair.
Anita is housemaid to the newspaper publisher, W. W. Jansen (Scott Glen), and the sole support and confidante of Jansen's troubled younger son Jack (Zac Efron), who was expelled from college for misbehaviour, and works delivering newspapers for his father.
Jack's elder brother Ward (Matthew McConaughy) is a journalist working for a Miami newspaper, who returns to the family home shortly before Van Wetter is due to be executed, bringing with him a well-dressed, ambitious black journalist from London called Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo, Spooks).
Ward and Yardley are on the hunt for a provocative, crusading story, and after setting up office in Ward's father's garage, they set out with Jack in tow to investigate whether Van Wetter is really Call's killer or not. But elbowing herself into the investigation and all their lives, especially Jack's, is Charlotte Bliss (Nicole Kidman), a naïve vamp hungry for excitement who is desperate to prove Van Wetter innocent and marry him, although she knows him in prison only through their exchange of steamy letters.
The Paperboy makes for mesmerising viewing, and like the alligators lurking beneath the surface of the Florida swamplands, there is more to the story than meets the eye as viewers are drawn ever deeper into the murky waters of its themes: racism, venality, lust and love, idealism versus ambition.
As with Monster's Ball and Precious, The Paperboy is compassionate as well as confronting, and Daniel manages to wrest unorthodox, powerful performances from his actors who make their outrageous characters credible and human.
Nicole Kidman as the vulnerable sexpot Charlotte is a revelation, bringing to the fore muscular talents that have been glimpsed only rarely since Eyes Wide Shut and The Hours, although viewers may object to the graphic scene of Charlotte seducing Van Wetter in prison. The violence and sexual content is strong indeed. Be warned.
Likewise, John Cusack, who as Van Wetter so inhabits this dangerous and extreme character as to be virtually unrecognisable.
Matthew McConaughy as Jack's elder brother, at war with his father and haunted and eventually mired by his homosexuality, also plays against type, as does David Oyelowo (Spooks), who in one splenetic volte-face conveys his revulsion of his 'slave' heritage with extraordinary power.
Also memorable is Zac Efron as Jack, the 'paperboy' of the title, whose sad coming of age is accompanied by tragedy.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 28th February 2013.