By the time Lee Daniels’ ‘The Paperboy’ reached Australian screens earlier this year, it had lost a lot of its momentum. Lee’s first feature since his Oscar-winning ‘Precious’ (2009), it had garnered early attention and acclaim, especially for its performances, but when it failed to snag any Oscar nominations of its own, it seemed to disappear almost entirely. This gem of a film, however, deserves better than that, and with half the year already gone, is still one of its best films so far.
Set in the 60s in a small town in the American South, the film follows Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), a bored teenager stifled by the bigoted apathy of his father and stepmother, his only source of affection coming from the sassy housekeeper Anita (Macy Gray). When his older brother, LA Times reporter Ward (Matthew McConaughey), returns home with fellow reporter Yardley (David Oyelowo) in tow, Jack tags along as they investigate what they believe to be the wrongful conviction of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a strange character jailed for the murder of the local sheriff. Jack’s world is sent into a spin, however, when he meets and falls head-over-heels for Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), a sexed-up, white-trash Barbie doll infatuated with Hillary and willing to do anything to help him. As the team of paperboys dig deeper into the case and this sordid world, they find themselves surrounded by unexpected secrets, and no one is quite who they appear.
THE PAPERBOY - TRAILER
‘Precious’ demonstrated that Daniels was a director with genuine style, willing to play and manipulate aesthetic to often unusual ends. ‘The Paperboy’ is an even more impressive and cohesive achievement, a glorious play on the low-budget exploitation flicks of the 60s and 70s. Everything about the film is dirty and dripping with sweat. Both men and women have no qualms spending most of the film in various stages of undress. Editing and cinematography is sketchy and ugly, the camera often out of focus or badly framed. This is an ugly-looking film, but its commitment to this style also makes it quite beautiful. Daniels and his team stick to the aesthetic entirely, and that bravery and attention to detail make this one of the most distinct films of the year. It’s also camp as hell and often ridiculous, including a now-infamous "shower" scene between Kidman and Efron that is there, not only because it has narrative function, but also because it’s incredibly silly. This is unabashed melodrama, mixed with some genuinely nerve-wracking sequences as the film goes from nostalgic camp to intense and brutal thriller.
The performances are also uniformly fantastic. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to name a weak member. Efron gives one of his most intelligent performances yet, further suggesting that there might be more to him than a pretty face. Oyelowo has a terrific grasp on the style of the film, and is gleefully put out by this sweaty small town. McConaughey is real wildfire, physical and charismatic and unpredictable, and still one of the most interesting actors working today. Cusack is the best he has been in ages, a wonderfully disgusting pig of a performance. Even Macy Gray is terrific as the moral heart of the film, a black woman stuck in a terribly bigoted town. And then there’s Nicole Kidman, who absolutely steals the film as Charlotte. This is a powerhouse performance, absolute dynamite. Kidman throws all caution to the wind, big, bold and brilliant, a much-needed reminder of how great an actor she is. This woman was robbed of her Oscar nomination.
This is an ugly-looking film, but its commitment to this style also makes it quite beautiful.
‘The Paperboy’ is unapologetically pulp, an instant camp classic dripping with sweat and blood and spit. Lee Daniels has delivered one hell of an experience, and further asserted himself as a significant talent to watch. This film may have disappeared during its time in the cinema, but its Blu-ray release gives it the second shot it so very much deserves. This will certainly end up on my list of the best films of the year. It would be a guilty pleasure if it wasn’t so genuinely damn good.
PICTURE & SOUND
At first glance, this might not seem the kind of film to show off the visual and audio excellence of the Blu-ray format, but a film this visually distinct really shines in the format. The 1080p 2.40:1 transfer looks grainy, dirty and tired, and thus recreates Daniels’ intentions perfectly. In high definition, all this detail really shines, excess grain muddying the image and giving it a strong sense of the past. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track also shows the film’s "age", and while it could have been a tad clearer, it at least fits well with the image.
Roadshow have provided no features for this release, but while this might usually be a negative, I can’t imagine they would have added to the experience of the film. The U.S. release only has about half an hour of bland featurettes, so we haven’t missed out on much.