In Lee Daniels’s “The Paperboy,” set in Florida in 1969, Nicole Kidman gives a sympathetic perfomance as a principled but delusional voluptuary, Charlotte Bless, whose fatalistic attraction to Death Row prisoners, and to John Cusack’s troglodytic Hillary Van Wetter in particular, comes not without self-knowledge. “I’ve got a fucked-up side,” she warns expelled college swimmer Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), who is so smitten with her that he has given her an engagement ring, his only memento of the long-absent mother for whom he yearns; Charlotte's psychic resonance for him is clunkingly over-explained.
The emotional damage she masks with her flashy outfits, Ann-Margret oomph, and her tantalizing Oedipal allure for Jack are likely to be less urgent talking points for most audiences than two provocative set pieces. In the first, watched by Jack and others, she parts her thighs and simulates fellatio on Van Wetter who orgasms, even though they’re separated by a prison screen. In the second, she helpfully urinates on Jack’s chest after he’s been stung by jellyfish. Lust and humiliation are twinned not only in Jack, but also in his gay older brother, the hot-shot investigative journalist Ward (Matthew McConaughey), whom Jack at one points finds handcuffed, lying naked on his stomach, and savagely beaten by two black hustlers in a motel room.
“The Paperboy” is ostensibly an Everglades noir that some pundits are characterizing as "Southern Gothic," though Kidman aside it is short on voodoo. Its lurid aesthetic is a smokescreen for the film’s complex analysis of Sunshine State racism during the Civil Rights era. Jack is the protagonist and his unrequited love for Charlotte drives the film more than Ward’s investigation of the cop killing for which Van Wetter may have been wrongly convicted. But Daniels, an African-American, is equally invested in Anita (Macy Gray), the Jansen family’s maid, who retrospectively narrates the story (censoring it with a little meta magic at one point), and Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowu), Ward’s cynical English co-writer.
Both these characters are black. Yardley is white in Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel, Anita was invented by Daniels (who had one of his grandmothers and a sister in mind, as well as “The Maid”). Whereas the struggles of the three main white characters are psychological, Anita’s and Yardley’s are sociological: They do what they can to survive among the whites who routinely oppress them in the pernicious atmosphere of the Deep South.
Anita, a surrogate mom for Jack, who loves her (and must apologize for using the N-word in front of her in a spat with Yardley), has an easy familiarity with the Jansen boys. But she tows the line in the presence of the patriarch, a cracker-ish newspaper proprietor (Scott Glenn) and his imperious editor fiancée (Nealla Gordon), a transplanted New Yorker who’s caught the bigotry bug. Gray stands out as a victim who accepts her lot.
Yardley gets along by pretending to be something he’s not, like Anthony Hopkins’s Coleman Silk in “The Human Stain,” which co-starred Kidman. At yesterday’s New York Film Festival press conference, Daniels indicated that, as a gay man who has dated whites and who once lied about his education to advance himself, he empathizes with Yardley. He ultimately exonerates Yardley by omitting him from the film’s creepy denouement in a swamp.
Scarcely as rancid as the early reviews suggested (paling beside Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me,” for example),“The Paper Boy” is not without a certain low-level melancholy, thanks primarily to Mario Grigorov’s quiet, moody score. Energized by jump cuts and rapid-fire montages, it’s soaked in the ambience of such rueful adult late-'60s fare as “In the Heat of the Night,” “Cool Hand Luke,” and “The Thomas Crown Affair,” though Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” (1973) and Arthur Penn’s 1975 Florida noir “Night Moves,” with which it shares an observational style, are also touchstones. It’s trash all right, but well-made trash with a political conscience and an accusatory stare.