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The scandalous Paperboy: Nicole Kidman in a swamp of sex, fury and Southern Gothic steam

A Steamroller Named Desire

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Everything you've heard about The Paperboy is true. Yes, there's peeing on somebody (to save his life). Yes, there's some incredibly rough sex. Yes, there's a psychic exchange of orgone energy in a police station. A fearless steambath of a Southern Gothic melodrama, The Paperboy is a shameless film — but not in the pejorative sense of the word, implying it is base or scheming. Rather, it is a film that refuses to feel shame about speaking some truth.

The fact that you go into a Walmart, Target or Kroger and their book sections now are covered with works exploring sadomasochistic themes should tell you two things. One: This kind of sexual behavior didn't just pop into existence thanks to some Twilight fanfiction. Two: The Paperboy's ugly, elemental sexual dynamics resonate with people. Love stories always carry the possibility of detouring into some unexpected places. And so does The Paperboy, which obliterates quibbles of good taste and restraint like Stanley Kowalski ripping through a boudoir's faux lace curtain.

First off, here is a movie about the South that gets one thing absolutely right: Southern culture may be polite, but it is not nice. Neither is the repression underneath that civility, the boiling id under the rattling lid, which ensures nothing but an explosion. The Paperboy says people who seek change must butt their heads against things that happened generations before they were born, and movements to preserve the status quo are always about something else. It also says that the real motivations underlying the defense of tradition — like the motives of those who seek to overturn it — are seldom honestly voiced.

Adapted from a novel by Pete Dexter, whose earlier Paris Trout took a similarly outré and unflinching look at the South's feral underbelly, it hinges upon a murder case involving a grizzled racist creep — John Cusack! — convicted of gutting a hated sheriff in swampy 1960s Florida. The local newspaper's editor has a son, a hard-hitting investigative journalist (Matthew McConaughey), who writes for papers. He has another son (Zac Efron) who delivers them. It's that son who gets mixed up with a hot-blooded hussy (Nicole Kidman) who's started up a grotesque prison relationship with the convicted killer.

When you go back and watch Lee Daniels' directorial debut Shadowboxer — and you should — you realize the relative calm of his breakthrough film Precious was an anomaly. The producer of hothouse Venus flytraps such as Monster's Ball and The Woodsman, Daniels has been pilloried in the press for the excesses he delivers so unapologetically here. The underlying implication is that the original director, Pedro Almodovar, would have made something more elegant and tasteful (and hence better) of this lurid material.

But the story flourishes in Daniels' hands specifically because he's as unhinged and florid a director as issues of hunger, hate and desire demand. Restraint and elegance allow for distance, and that's one of the reasons why The Paperboy freaked so many people out on this year's festival circuit — Daniels allows you no safe distance. You're embroiled in everything that's happening in this film before the studio logo even comes up. And that gentle remove never materializes, not even when the movie stars show up.

Take the casting of Matthew McConaughey, who's still a draw as a leading man (especially after the year he's been having — Magic Mike, Bernie, Killer Joe and now this). Without giving anything away, he's a respectable actor playing a part that makes a point about social dynamics in a way most actors wouldn't. His participation, and our identification with him as a matinee idol, makes the role sting. He also explodes his sweaty ingenue performance in A Time To Kill 16 years ago for the overheated lie that movie was — timid and tame on racism where The Paperboy scrapes raw nerves. The idea of narrative equivalency is not something you can do when you want to talk honestly about the South, unless you're willing to dig deep and put it all out there.

Everyone in this cast digs deep, none more so than Nicole Kidman. Extending a streak that runs through Dogville, Eyes Wide Shut, Margot at the Wedding, Birth and The Golden Compass, the ferocious Kidman proves she's the closest we've had to Elizabeth Taylor in her Reflections in A Golden Eye/Secret Ceremony/X Y & Zee/Boom! era — a marquee name who isn't afraid to peel off the gloves and glamour and say, "I am a movie star, but if you trust me and go on this journey, I will take you places movie stars don't dare." Her full-boil sexpot Charlotte Bless is simultaneously a diva portrait of femininity, a drag-queen burlesque of frustrated desire, and a scarifying portrait of voracious need.

As staggering as Kidman is, she is equaled by singer/actress Macy Gray as the editor's family maid Anita. A combination Greek chorus, omniscient narrator and voice of reason, her character is simply a force of nature. Like her, the entire cast dives without reservation into the movie's muck and fury. You won't be able to hear the phrase "What's the plastic for?" without picturing the anguish on Zac Efron's face — a shock as indelible as Brad Pitt asking Morgan Freeman, "What's in the box?"

All of which makes The Paperboy the best film about the South since Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan. Shot in a Super 16 Cinemascope that's a glorious, grainy testament to the power of early '70s cinema, it is willing to go wherever it must to shake its audience into feeling something. The only thing last year's The Help had on The Paperboy was its illusion of respectability. That need to put a good foot forward is a defining Southern trait, especially when company comes around.

But The Paperboy has some truth to tell, and sometimes the truth hurts, y'all. So many films about troubled times use lies as a balm for festering wounds, but catharsis is the rip that lets the poison drain and dry. The Paperboy is the catharsis, the rip and the slug of liquor that makes the pain quiet down while the hard work of healing begins.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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