THE PAPERBOY. Sweaty, tense thriller with excellent Nicole Kidman

Lee Daniels, the author of the award-winning Precious, this time decided to tackle what might seem like a standard black crime thriller.

Krzysztof Walecki

20 January 2024

THE PAPERBOY. Sweaty, tense thriller with excellent Nicole Kidman

However, by setting the story in 1969 in a small town in Florida, making the narrator a black maid, and focusing more on characters than the plot, he tried to balance the genre boundaries and go beyond the typical crime scheme. Did he meet his own ambitions?

Ward Jansen, a well-known journalist from Miami (another unconventional, good role for McConaughey), returns to his hometown regarding the impending death sentence of Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack, a surprise in this actor’s role), accused of murdering the local sheriff. Van Wetter did not receive a fair trial – even his lawyer was not interested in hearing the client’s testimony. Jansen seeks help from Charlotte Bless (excellent Kidman), who has developed a written and very intimate correspondence with Van Wetter, although they have not yet met. Defiant Charlotte has had more than one “prison fiancé,” but it doesn’t discourage Jansen’s brother, twenty-year-old Jack (solid Efron), who quickly falls for her. Working as a driver, Jack becomes involved in the investigation led by his older brother but soon discovers that even if Van Wetter is innocent, it doesn’t mean he deserves to be freed. The Paperboy

The Paperboy Nicole Kidman Zac Efron

The Paperboy , from the start, plays a difficult game with the audience – it wants to be a serious film, telling about hidden desires (with sexual desire at the forefront) and blatant intolerance (racism). However, the style it employs often makes it challenging for the viewer to understand the director’s intentions. The narrator is Anita, the maid working in the Jansen household (a successful role by Macy Gray), often mistreated by the current mistress, and her commentary is characterized by the appropriate seriousness, devoid of cynicism or irony. But, since Jack is the main character of The Paperboy, whose fantasies about the girl Bless we observe, a certain immaturity and youthful naivety emanate from the screen, causing viewers to distance themselves from the story. This is most noticeable in the beach scene, where Jack, stung by jellyfish, is saved by Charlotte… by urinating on him. Fortunately, along with the budding affection for the blonde beauty, a change occurs in Jack, translating into a somewhat heavier tone.

The Paperboy Nicole Kidman Zac Efron Matthew McConaughey

Daniels’ characters, at first glance, are figures known from many other crime stories – the noble journalist (detective), his trusted assistant, the seductive femme fatale, the wrongly convicted prisoner. In this case too, there is dissonance because each character breaks away from the stereotype, and the director is ruthless in depicting them. The scars on Ward’s face hide many secrets, and his erection during the first meeting with Hillary and Charlotte also says something about him. His collaborator, the black Englishman Yardley, is nothing like the amiable sidekick – he is a haughty type who boasts about his position and education. Van Wetter’s innocence is irrelevant because he is an outright villain and a first-rate psychopath, who, if he hasn’t killed anyone yet, it’s probably just out of laziness. Charlotte, on the other hand, is too loud and aware of her penchant for bad guys to be able to deceive and manipulate them. Her love for Van Wetter (and for previous convicts) is sincere as long as he remains behind bars.

The Paperboy Nicole Kidman Zac Efron

The action of The Paperboy takes place during a very hot summer, and Daniels skillfully captures this stifling atmosphere. Sweaty characters seem defenseless against the heat, revealing more than concealing, intensifying not only erotic tension. What was Florida like in 1969? Intolerant, for sure. The slain sheriff was a racist, with a considerable number of shot blacks, but a monument was still erected in his honor. The Jansen family father, the editor of the local newspaper, has no problem putting a headline about his son being peed on the front page. The Van Wetter family lives in the swamps, where they skin alligators. One look at them, and I can guess that preparing their family tree might reveal a few surprises. It’s an unpleasant world, dirty and corrupt. It’s easy to get into Daniels’ film because he is a born storyteller, but when it comes to an end, you feel like jumping into the shower and spending a few hours there.

The Paperboy Nicole Kidman

We are dealing with a crime story in which the mystery is secondary because it doesn’t drive the plot. Desires determine the life and death of the characters. They come from nowhere – a sinful look, words on paper, or spoken. Dreams of a better life turn into nightmares because either you end up in a shabby house in the swamps or with your throat cut.

Although Daniels is not particularly interested in the genre itself, the ending is reminiscent of the best film noirs – pessimistic, bitter, but in its own way ironic. Everyone becomes a victim, not just those who died. Personally, I think the director ends his film a bit too quickly; the strong finale has not yet resonated when the closing credits appear on the screen. Perhaps Daniels himself had enough of the world he created. I don’t blame him for that.