The Savage Stack - THE PAPERBOY (2012)

Lee Daniels' sweaty sexploitation romp is a piece of lurid pulp unfit for the era in which it was made.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The thirty-eighth entry into this unbroken backlog is Lee Daniels’ sweaty, scummy piece of sexually charged pulp, The Paperboy…

Lee Daniels is an extraordinary filmmaker we don’t talk about enough. His movies possess this pompous air of self-importance, positioning themselves as Awards bait art while still feeling slightly “off”, owning a sexual energy that courses through their filmic veins, propelling each moment forward to the next skewed scene. His first feature as a writer/director, Shadowboxer (’05), combines pulp sensibilities (following a stepmother/son hired killer duo [Helen Mirren/Cuba Gooding Jr.]) while simultaneously investigating the psychosexual realm of a dying woman being in love with the progeny she always wanted to bear as her own. Even Precious (’09) – for all its misery porn “life of poverty” tragedy – can’t help but revel in the lowdown, as Mo’Nique’s Academy Award-winning turn as the vicious mother of our titular obese sob story (Gabourey Sidibe) still orders her sexually abused daughter to go down on her. Daniels is a total weirdo who wants to make prestige pictures, filling even his most blatant attempts at Oscar bait (like The Butler [‘13]) with a series of lurid cinematic tics and bizarre performances.

Which is why The Paperboy (’12) may be Daniels’ ultimate wacko masterwork. Originally intended to be Pedro Almodóvar’s English language debut, it’s a sweaty, perverse neo noir, sporting a cast that would make any filmmaker salivate – Nicole Kidman going full method, Matthew McConaughey at the beginning of his short lived “renaissance”, a scrappy David Oyelowo – and combining them with a strange bit of stunt casting (Zac Efron), and a seasoned vet utterly stripping himself of an established persona (John Cusack, filthy as fuck). Oozing racial tension, The Paperboy is a Vietnam-era period piece that uses its righteous storyline regarding two newspaper men (McConaughey and Oyelowo) chasing down leads in the case of a conceivably unjustified death-row inmate (Cusack) as a cover for multiple sex scenes, and a head-scratching instance where Kidman pisses on Efron to save him from a poisonous jellyfish sting. Daniels can’t help but indulge his basest instincts, allowing a legitimate sense of skeeviness to be injected into the already unpleasant proceedings.

Shot in blown out 16mm (and narrated with exaggerated Down South gusto by Macy Gray’s housekeeper, Anita), The Paperboy doesn’t just capture the era in which its story’s set, but feels like a product of the exploitation cinema that was starting to rise up out of the epoch’s sewers. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer’s harsh lighting accents tacky makeup that’s caked onto almost every woman’s face, and the threads (provided by costume designer Caroline Eselin) are all cheap and rumpled – a mix of polyester construction that layers each character with period-fit flair. Nicole Kidman’s danger-addicted Florida hussy, Charlotte Bless, looks like she stepped out of a Joseph P. Marwa sexploitation romp, her big blonde hair and cat eyes screaming horniness whenever she’s close to the jailhouse her white trash dreamboat, Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack), is awaiting execution in. It’s no wonder teen flunkie-turned-journalist wheelman Jack Jensen (Efron) becomes instantly infatuated with her. Charlotte’s the centerfold in magazines he jerks off to in nothing but tightie-whitie underwear, and Jack hopes that one day a real woman like Charlotte will emerge from those pages and devastate his world.

The performances Daniels conjures out of his actors are all heightened to a level of hothouse sensationalism. Every cast member is constantly covered in a sheen of sweat, the ridiculously humid small town summer rendering it virtually impossible for any of them to remain clean for very long. Oyelowo in particular is flexing each creative muscle he’s got, playing the writing partner to star Miami reporter Ward Jensen (McConaughey), who scoffs at all these redneck assholes calling him “boy” and marveling at a British accent coming out of a black man’s mouth. But its Cusack who really elevates The Paperboy into genuine WTF territory. His incarcerated murderer materializes from a cage like a feral animal, commanding Kidman’s desperate lover to simulate performing oral sex on him while Hillary rubs one out in front of the reporting team, and then scolds her the next day for daring to wear pants into their second “interview”. Cusack is out of his fucking mind in The Paperboy, leaving the days of Lloyd Dobler in the dust. Sometimes its difficult to even look at him, as the former boy next door transforms into this barking beast, slinging racial epithets and not giving a good goddamn about any modicum of human decency. It’s a nightmare performance that has to be witnessed to be believed.

At first, it seems like Efron may have been miscast. His almost supernatural good looks and way the costume department dresses the actor to appear like a preteen boy are somewhat distracting, but Efron finds a soulful airheaded glee in Jack that’s playfully amusing. His puppy dog love with Charlotte develops into jealous possessiveness – the way a teenager becomes controlling over their first boy/girlfriend. His combativeness with Yardley contrasts with his little brother/big sister bonding with Anita, whom Jack disappoints when he finally snaps and calls the Brit reporter a “nigger” in front of the maid. It’s a revelatory turn for the former High School Musical (’06) heartthrob, as Daniels subverts that image, stripping it down to the primal instincts that drive all hungry hot men. Jack is a budding hound, sniffing at Charlotte’s panties, and waiting for the disreputable woman to let him in. Using a series of indolent dissolves, Jack’s lusting is explored through dreamy montages, where faces and bodies become superimposed over sandy beaches and blindingly blue skies. Even if you despise all the pulp trashiness, it’s difficult to deny The Paperboy as a love letter to the loose formal stylings of '60s/'70s cinema.

In the end, Jack’s fiery hormones reflect the main thematic thrust of The Paperboy. While the narrative takes several twists and turns (thanks to co-writer Peter Dexter adapting his own novel), navigating a muddy road through bloodstained Florida swamp country (transforming into a bona fide rednecksploitation horror show at certain points), the mystery plays second fiddle to Daniels indulging all of these characters’ not so hidden carnal necessities. In one way or another, they’re all hankering for forbidden fruit – be it criminal sex, homosexual sex, underage sex, interracial sex – and the writer/director takes extreme pleasure in letting each character wallow in (and in some cases, get punished for) their erotic compulsions. What’s most thrilling is that Daniels doesn’t try to hide his perversion beneath any sort of respectable sheen. With The Paperboy, it’s out in the open, inviting you to leer at hard, fluid-stained bodies. We need more filmmakers like Lee Daniels; blatant provocateurs smuggling corruption into star-studded oddities. Cinema’s a lot more interesting with them behind the camera. 

The Paperboy is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of Millennium Entertainment.