Early in Lee Daniels’s film adaptation of Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel The Paperboy is a moment demonstrating how the film will function as an inverse of social conventions. The protagonist Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), a young college dropout who has moved back to his home in southern Florida, is lying in his bedroom when the house maid and film’s narrator Anita Chester (Macy Gray) enters. After some playful banter that suggests the young white boy and older black woman do not see each other in a master/servant context, the pair decides to swap places. Jack pretends to fuss about the messy state of the bedroom while Anita drops to the ground and declares she is going to lie around and jerk off all day. Set in the early 1960s in a notoriously conservative part of America, this swapping of racial, gender and class roles evokes the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s writing on the carnivalesque. The use of humour, the grotesque and parody to subvert social norms, hierarchies and notions of good taste runs throughout The Paperboy, a film noir that is set in the bright blistering heat of the Florida sun, the inverse to the shadow filled metropolises of traditional film noir.
The initial set-up for the film is a journalistic investigation into an alleged wrongful arrest. Jack’s older brother Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) arrives back in town with colleague Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) to write about Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a man on death row for the murder of a despised local sheriff. Also in the picture is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a woman with a background of becoming romantically obsessed with inmates who now wants to marry Hillary. While The Paperboy at first glance seems to be a fight against injustice and police corruption narrative, the investigation into Hillary’s presumed innocence soon falls into the background to function as the catalyst for what the film really wants to explore: an Oedipal dynamic between Jack, Charlotte and Hillary.
As an overtly sexual woman who desires dangerous men, Charlotte is quickly identified as the film’s femme fatale. Jack is instantly drawn to her and it is no coincidence that she’s a much older woman and Jack does not have a mother of his own; hence the symbolic son and mother relationship of the Oedipal scenario. The symbolic father is Hillary whom Jack believes he has to rescue Charlotte from since she desires him against all common sense. Keeping with the inverse of expectations theme, Hillary is revealed not to be a suffering victim of injustice but a crude, misogynist and racist man. For a film with so many sexual allusions, the most explicit scene is when at Hillary’s command Charlotte mimes giving him oral sex. The scene is confronting and uncomfortably comical, and constantly shows the reactions of the disturbed and bemused onlookers who include Jack. The moment is a lurid encapsulation of a psychoanalytic primal scene, where Jack is traumatised watching his symbolic parents engaged in a sexual act. The presentation of Charlotte as symbolic mother and object of desire for Jack is further perverted when she urinates on his jellyfish stings; an act that is both bizarrely nurturing and sexual.
And yet Charlotte is not a traditional femme fatale in the sense that she is not blamed for bringing about the downfall of the male hero. Her sexuality is not deceitful and she is always open about her feelings and attitude towards sex. Within the context of the other characters Charlotte is a character of striking honesty and purity. Unlike investigative journalist ‘heroes’ Ward and Yardley, Charlotte keeps no secrets about who she is. The only other character that compares to her in this regard is Anita who functions as Jack’s moral compass. The Paperboy contains several touching and tender moments between Jack and Anita to suggest the extent in which boundaries concerning race, sexuality and gender are artificial and constructed.
Nevertheless, The Paperboy is a gleefully carnivalesque film, but a contemporary one since it parodies not just dominant culture but what dominant culture perceives to be its binary opposite. To put it another way, the film’s camp aesthetic means that the targets for derision are across the board. The film portrays heterosexual sex acts as perverse and grotesque, but does the same for homosexual acts. There are both male and female characters who are presented as caricatures, and both white and black characters are portrayed as deceitful. The lower classes are mocked and so are the upper classes, as represented by Jack and Ward’s father WW Jansen (Scott Glenn) and his girlfriend Nancy (Nikolette Noel). Yet underneath the borderline hysterical plot twists and oversaturated colour scheme is the empathy between Jack and Anita, and also between Jack and Ward. The portrayal of the relationship between individual characters, when free from how they identify as belonging to particular social groups, is what is crucial to why The Paperboy is more than a giant southern American freak show.
The most arresting part of The Paperboy is saved until the end when the film makes its definitive attack on cultural hegemony. The film concludes in the dangerous yet cinematically beautiful swamp, which exists as a transgressive space of otherness in a similar way to the oft mentioned but never seen Chinatown in Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown. Such primal and exotic spaces that exist outside of what is considered civilisation are often evoked in film noir and other American genres, and are designed to somehow destroy the male hero. However, in the topsy-turvy world of The Paperboy this is not a space that has been defined by external cultures, but one that has been defined by white, masculine, heterosexuality at its most perverse and deadly. The ultimate threat that Jack faces is not due to his exposure to black culture, or homosexuality or to female sexuality. Instead the threat is monstrous dominant American culture as personified by the swamp people.
Everything about The Paperboy seems designed to undermine expectations and the result is an exhilaratingly unpredictable film with moments that induce shocked laughter as well as moments of surprising empathy. By creating a film that at times seems so gaudy and out-of-control, Daniel proves himself to be a master filmmaker. Lurid use of music and superimposition create delirious sequences to convey Jack’s point-of-view. One sequence is after a jellyfish has stung him; another is to convey his sexual obsession with Charlotte. Both moments are similarly hallucinogenic to capture the madness and intensity of his longing for Charlotte. Shot on widescreen 16mm and then blown up to the size of 35mm, the film has both an old fashioned yet otherworldly feel, in keeping with its subversion of film noir style and themes. Audiences willing to surrender to the cinematic subversions and transgressions found within The Paperboy will be rewarded with an experience that is both strangely familiar and yet seems entirely unique.