The Paperboy (2012) – directed by Lee Daniels

by Margaux Williamson

(I went to go see this on one of its last days at a cinema near me. The cinema was empty.)

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The big story with Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy, was that Nicole Kidman,   a classy, respected actor, plays trash on screen, pees on handsome, young Zac Efron, and does other things that you won’t believe Nicole Kidman is doing.

In reviews for the movie, the words most tossed around were “tantalizing”, “trashy” and “melodramatic”. The consensus seems to be that the movie is a turn-on but a hot mess and perhaps not very smart. As I looked for positive reviews out of so many bad ones (after I had seen the movie and loved it) I got the impression that a lot of people assume that what turns you on often isn’t very smart.

The Paperboy is tantalizing, trashy and melodramatic. It turns you on, twists your heart in gruesome ways and knows what it’s after.

It’s about three outsiders born to a place that doesn’t want, value or love them. Despite this, these particular outsiders still have a yearning to have some meaningful connection with this place – even if that connection involves all the regular dangers involved in loving something that hates you, and the masochism inherent in doing so.

It’s hard to say why you would want to love, and be loved, by a place that hates you, but it’s easy to understand needing to be connected with the thing that you were born from. No different than longing for a mother that never wanted you. In this case, the mother is 1969 southern Florida and our local outsiders include a closeted gay white man, an ambitious African American man and a lustful blond woman. The outsiders move towards what hates them with varying degrees of unconsciousness, driving instincts and knowing persistence.

It’s an odd story for the big screen. We are more used to movies where bad people do bad things to the audience’s enormous horror or delight – or movies where great people work to change the terrible wrongs of history to a contemporary audience’s knowing pleasure.
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But here, though our characters are outsiders, they aren’t trying to change their time or their place, and they’re not trying to run away. And though they all employ some elements of disguise (playing it straight, employing a fake British accent, wearing a blond wig on top of slightly less perfect blond hair) none of them are spending much energy on repressing their true selves or desires – or on figuring out how to fit in.

In other words, these characters are not activists, villains, victims, heroes, conformists or adventurers. They’re not even people who are just trying to be themselves but be better in every way. They are only trying to be a part of the time and place where they come from – whether this means hurting themselves or others. Maybe this is such a familiar part of most of our lives that it barely looks like a story when it’s in the movies.

The plot literalizes this situation in a more unfamiliar way. It and our outsiders revolve around a white man named Hillary Van Wetter who is on death row for murdering a known racist police chief. The outsiders (two investigative journalists and a woman who is Hillary Van Wetter’s pen pal lover) look into the matter to see if maybe this is a prisoner who should and could be exonerated.

It becomes clear quickly enough that whether or not Hillary Van Wetter is a threat to racist police chiefs, he is most definitely a threat to women, African Americans and homosexuals. Despite this, our local outsiders continue to get closer to him and/or closer towards his exoneration as though they are on a train they don’t think to get off of.

The movie is seductive, exciting and, at times, torturous. The main respite is the familiarity and peace the outsiders have with each other – they share the intimacy of strangers who are in the same boat and the ease of colleagues who have their eyes on different prizes.

The most interesting thing about the movie is that the director seems to be in that boat too. The camera’s not looking down at the outsiders but is next to them, filming them with a knowingness and a loose, loving hand – looking out with them at the Deep South, a place that is promising us something if we can only figure out what it is and how to get it.

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When we look through the camera, we see that, somehow, Hillary Van Wetter, the local swamp-dwelling racist, homophobic, misogynistic killer on death row, doesn’t feel like the most villainous character in the movie.  That role somehow falls to a peripheral character named Ellen Guthrie – a woman who’s come from New York to marry the father of one of our outsiders, a man near retirement who runs the local newspaper. After they are married, she will run the paper alongside him.

Though she plays a small role, her more insidious racism and classism,  particularly in regards to the maid (played with exhausted, charismatic genius by Macy Gray) seems colder and crueler in the context of all this movie’s bloody mayhem since it’s a violence that cuts with distance, not entanglement. Macy Gray happens to also be our narrator.

All of the actors in this movie do an amazing job, and most have gotten credit for that, but the director has done an amazing job too.  I’m sure Lee Daniels was intentionally looking to tantalize by getting Nicole Kidman to play the part of Hillary Van Wetter’s pen pal lover, but I bet he didn’t anticipate that it would so greatly eclipse the real dark heart of the story. Maybe if future audiences forget who Nicole Kidman is, they might be able to see both the tantalizing top of this movie, and its ugly, gentle and familiar depths.

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