The review below was written before I introduced half-marks to my rating scale, so mentions of ‘two-stars’ should be taken to mean ‘two-and-a-half stars’ (i.e. exactly 50%).
There’s a certain kind of film which dominates the film schedules around the start of each year, being the type of film which is up for awards contention. These films can be good, but they also have a certain belaboured worthiness. Once that period has passed, you get lots of really interesting films that never stood a chance with awards judges, and this can often be the most exhilarating time for filmgoing, at least for mainstream audiences (the dynamic, if that’s the right word, is quite different for the arthouse). Even when these films don’t quite hit a quality threshold they can often be rather interesting. They’re what I would call ‘two-star films’, which are often unfairly overlooked when people are reassessing film history in hindsight.
Now, I feel in two minds about assigning star-ratings to films. They can be a distraction to more nuanced commentary. And though I don’t put them front and centre at the top of a review, I do assign ratings in the categories of my posts (as those reading my reviews will have seen), to help me remember how I felt about a film. With up to five stars to award, three stars indicates a film which is enjoyable and above average in quality, and which I can confidently recommend. Two stars should not then be seen as a massive decline in standards: it does not mean I recommend avoiding a film, but it does indicate I have some serious reservations. It suggests a film about which I would not be surprised if people hated it, but one with definite merits. One which may be enjoyable in a pulpy way.
The Paperboy is one such film. It is made with some style, confidently mimicking a late-60s aesthetic, all degraded colour stock and graininess to the image, to fit with the costumes, hairstyles and set designs. It’s all very artfully done.
The plot, such as it is, concerns a journalist (Matthew McConaughey) returning to his roots in the American South to lead a misguided defence of a reprehensible murder suspect (John Cusack) which has consequences rather heavy-handedly foreshadowed right at the start by an interview with the journalist’s family’s housekeeper (Macy Gray). This interview, incidentally, continues as a sporadic voiceover throughout the film and frames the main body of the narrative. Additionally, the murderer, whilst incarcerated, has attracted devoted admiration from a middle-aged woman (Nicole Kidman), herself the object of affections from the journalist’s younger brother (Zac Efron), the “paperboy” of the title.
There’s a lot of plot, even more than I’ve relayed here (which omits several characters), but it doesn’t seem like that is what the film is really about, so much as atmosphere and style. That atmosphere is an overheated slow-burn melodrama. Dialogue is drawled and mumbled, there are awkward silent pauses, and many constrictive close-ups of heads and shoulders, inducing a claustrophobic feeling to the early part of the movie where you’re trying to figure out the relationships between these characters. It’s a little bit alienating at times.
But what in the end you get is a film of frissons, of little challenges to the viewer, self-regarding shocks to our bourgeois complacency perhaps. Violent sexual peccadilloes, an odd and onanistic jailhouse interview scene, alligator innards, and a jellyfish sting eased by micturition; there are a lot of fluids in this film, commingled with the omnipresent sweat pouring off all the characters in this hot and humid Floridian climate.
Alongside this, there’s also a sort of voyeurism to the film, which is uneasy because it feels at times exploitative. Every review you’ll see of this film will mention the word “trash” or “trashy”, partly because of those frissons, but partly because the milieu it depicts is what is commonly known as “poor white trash”. I can only assume this term represents a kissing-cousin to the hateful British term “chav”, a way of demonising the suburban poor. It feels like there’s a fair bit of demonisation here, whether of the swamp-dwelling inbred family of Cusack’s murderer and his brother and wife (wives?), or of Kidman’s insinuating sexuality, as the prime examples. The only character who comes off well is Zac Efron’s infatuated 20-year-old, who, sure, spends a lot of time topless or in his underwear, but actually brings a fair bit of actorly chops to the part, and conveys more pathos than the former teen heartthrob really gets credit for in his earlier roles.
Despite everything, I can’t say it really adds up to a whole lot, but it’s an interesting ride.
Director Lee Daniels; Writers Daniels and Pete Dexter (based on Dexter’s novel); Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer; Starring Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 20 March 2013.