Director Lee Daniels follows up his Academy Award-nominated genre-fluid coming of age masterpiece Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire with the not-Academy Award-nominated genre-fluid pulpy noir psychedelic coming of age crime thriller The Paperboy. The film opens with Anita Chester (an excellent Macy Gray) narrating the story of how the town's sheriff came to be murdered a few summers ago. The film jumps back and forth from a grainy, saturated, almost Super 8 style to a stark, black and white, ultra-widescreen noir style, complete with floating text and a whole lot of mood. This is just the first three minutes of the film.
From there, Anita narrates the story of how her former employer's family came to investigate this murder after the killer was already sentenced to death. Jack Jensen (Zac Efron, never better), a disgraced collegiate swimmer and current paperboy, is hired by his Pulitzer Prize-winning brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey in his fourth brilliant performance from 2012) and his writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo, also strong) to be their driver. They've been contacted by Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman, also strong) to investigate the slapdash trial that resulted in her death row fiance Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack, also strong) being convicted of the murder of the sheriff. Among other anomalies, any actual evidence connecting Hilary to the crime disappeared before the trial and the judge admitted the evidence on testimony alone.
The Paperboy has a whole lot of exposition but Lee Daniels is in no hurry to let you know what's happening. When a director is willing to use any genre trope or storytelling trick to bring a film to life, they're probably willing to leave the audience in the dark as they establish tone and style. That is the crux of The Paperboy.
Any of the individual narratives in the film could be a compelling film. Jack Jensen is a compelling character, a fallen hero lost in the world and unwilling to do anything to change his status. The relationship between Ward and Yardley is also very engaging. Yardley is the brains behind the partnership, forced to rely on Ward in the tense immediate post-Civil Rights Era to even be let in to interview leads. Charlotte Bless also provides an intriguing and perverse love story with hints of psychosis, such as her belief that people forced to fall in love over great distance develop psychic abilities. And our humble narrator Anita is a strongly realized character, a fiercely independent housemaid who finally gets to embrace life because of the Civil Rights Act.
The Paperboy is a brilliant visual experiment. Each character has their own style of cinematography following them around. The more they interact, the more the styles crossover. Charlotte has a psychedelic, flowing, super bright lighting scheme that defines Jack's fantasies. Hilary lives in the shadows of the noir world, not fully within the clear morality of light and dark. Anita's world is dull indoors but vibrant once she steps outside with a new wig on. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer elevates the genre-jumping feature into something accessible and beautiful.
So much of Lee Daniels' vision relies on the visual presentation of the film that the story does get lost from time to time. It took me far longer than I care to admit to realize that Hilary was on death row for the murder of the sheriff. That's a problem in structure that somehow doesn't fully apply as a criticism of The Paperboy. A film this experimental doesn't exactly live in the world of mainstream cinema and does, to an extent, get to define its own standards of filmmaking. If you can accept the conceits, The Paperboy is a wild and unsettling ride.
Thoughts on The Paperboy? Share them below. I was so blown away that I'm naming The Paperboy the Sketchy Details Movie of the Month.