Sometimes an actor just doesn’t seem to belong. If you looked at the cast list for ”The Paperboy” and thought ‘Zac Efron? That kid out of ”High School Musical” who tried to play a grown-up in the sappy, gilded melodrama of ”The Lucky One”?’, Lee Daniels (”Precious”) new film might just turn you around.
Of course, a character is made up of much more than just an actor – everything from the costuming to the tone wielded by the director and the presence of other performers all play a part, and Efron might still flail dramatically without such quality around him, but he’s right at home playing the lynchpin of this dark Southern morality tale.
It’s the sweaty deep south of Florida at the end of the 1960s, and a man is sitting on death row for the murder of a hated local sheriff as an eclectic cast of characters starts to descend around him.
One is the former swimming star Jack (Efron), a kid with abandonment issues who’s been raised by kindly, down-home black maid Anita (Macy Gray) along with his brother Ward (McConaghuey), who’s now a star reporter in Miami. Ward and stuck-up colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) return to the backwater hometown to look into procedural misconduct that put the murder suspect Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) behind bars, and their biggest lead is trashy platinum blonde Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), who’s been writing to Hillary in prison and is convinced the pair are deeply in love.
With Charlotte hanging around the home office Ward and Yardley have set up in the family garage and Jack serving as driver and general dogs body for the task, he falls hard for the vixenish Charlotte, but her presence will cause nothing but trouble between the two brothers and their co-worker as they try to get to the bottom of the story.
The swampy air hides too many secrets and with the simmering racial tension of the unenlightened locale already wound tight, tempers are a knife edge and there are just too many seamy characters around for anyone to expect a happy ending.
Cusack steals the show as the seemingly dumb yokel. He talks with a slack-jawed drawl but is much smarter and perhaps more dangerous than anybody realises. The climax turns unexpectedly bloody and you’ll be shocked just who comes out of the whole sordid affair with their sanity (and life) intact.
Daniels captures the sodden Florida landscape beautifully, the period detail of the setting and the idioms of the local speech beautifully rendered on screen. Efron doesn’t try very hard – maybe he still doesn’t have a great performance in him – and this kind of thing comes naturally to McConaghuey, but Kidman and Cusack have transformed themselves for the roles of the shameless trailer park temptress and the wild-haired, piercing-eyed, slobbering psychopath.