If you asked me to name the elements of a perfect film, I would start with a swamp. It has to be set in a swamp, I’d say, and it should involve rough, disgusting sex; weird, not quite believable characters; an editing style that makes you aware of its splices and filters and jump-cuts; a partial disregard for the fourth wall; simulated masturbation; Matthew McConaghey‘s naked ass; and the longest, most brutal throat-cutting ever committed to film.
So you can imagine how I felt about The Paperboy, a hot, hazy, “Florida noir” directed by Lee Daniels that, among these other virtues, tenderly exploits its leading man (a de-Disneyfied Zac Efron) in iconic tightie-whities against the only slightly greater distraction of a thriller plot. Said plot concerns a convict, his slightly mad girlfriend, the two journalists that seek to prove his (doubtful) innocence, and the brother of one of them, who loves the girlfriend. But, like only the best thrillers, the film takes unexpected liberties with its own tailgating storyline. You know who’s marked for death, but you don’t know how they’ll die, which adds pleasure to a film that doesn’t seek to fool you, but only to lead you doomwards, toward its inevitable, gory end. Whatever The Paperboy lacks in subtlety it makes up for in camp value, with the talents of Macy Gray (as the narrator of the tale) and Nicole Kidman (whose character was described, in a press conference, as a kind of ‘swamp barbie’) pushing it into high camp gear excellently and often. By the same token, whatever the 1995 novel on which The Paperboy is based may have been on paper, Daniels’ adaptation has done the story the greatest possible compliment by making the film not about the story at all, but the raging subtext that the novel’s author, Pete Dexter, might not have even imagined: the racial and sexual tension that has become, in retrospect, 1969’s definitive point of interest.
It always bothers me when people say that the setting is ‘a character in itself’, but this is absurdly true of The Paperboy‘s setting, which is specifically the marshy, deadly wasteland of Florida swamps, and generally the confederate flag-wielding, n-word-slinging wasteland of the American South on the verge of social revolution. It’s the film’s setting that grounds it and gives it substance, the subjective heart of a film that seems alternately nostalgic about and rigorously critical of this particular part of the past, as shot through the luscious, pantyhose filter of 70s-style filmmaking. Daniels is a filmmaker who wants to try his hand at many different styles and forms of storytelling, ever wary of falling into some kind of niche. It’s this fear of stasis, I think, that makes The Paperboy appear to many as a kind of mess. But what seems a mess in early stages can be the birth of a new form of storytelling entirely, and what Daniels may have hit upon with his jumpy cutting and meta-narration, is a way of telling a film from multiple points of view on a cinematic rather than a narrative level. For a film about the warring factions of truth, delusion and persuasion, it’s a happy innovation, and one that I hope Daniels will continue to fine-tune in his subsequent films.
The 50th Annual New York Film Festival runs from September 28th to October 14th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.