Friday, March 1, 2013

The Paperboy: Quagmire of Evil

"We are trapped in our own situation...We are in darkness, and cannot see. We are ill, and cannot heal ourselves. We are injured, and need someone to bind our wounds. We are trapped, and cannot break free from our captivity. We are addicted to patterns of behavior that we cannot master. We need an illuminator, a healer, a liberator."   - Alister McGrath, in Redemption
 The Paperboy, based on Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel, was nominated for a boatload of awards in 2012, including Best Actress (Kidman was even nominated for a Golden Globe), Best Film, Best Supporting Actress, Best Ensemble, and Best Supporting Actor. I occasionally watch award-winning movies just to see what is currently considered commendable, and based on the official site summary, this movie sounded intriguing:
“The Paperboy takes audiences deep into the backwaters of steamy 1960s South Florida, as investigative reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) chase a sensational, career-making story. With the help of Ward's younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) and sultry death-row groupie Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), the pair tries to prove violent swamp-dweller Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was framed for the murder of a corrupt local sheriff. Based on the provocative bestselling novel by Pete Dexter (Mulholland Falls, Rush), The Paperboy peels back a sleepy small town's decades-old fa├žade of Southern gentility to reveal a quagmire of evil as dark as a Florida bayou.”
John Grisham meets James Lee Burke, perhaps?  Maybe it would be worth watching. I’m all in favor of a moving story where those who fight for justice wade through the quagmire of sin and defeat evil.  Note to self: next time, check out other reviews first, and read the official blurb more carefully. I foolishly assumed that it must take light to "reveal a quagmire of evil as dark as the Florida bayou," and that the purpose of exposing evil was to deal with it. I could not have been more wrong.

I feel like I should say something nice to begin this review. Very well – The Paperboy is well acted. For those of you in law enforcement, listen very carefully: if John Cusack is ever accused of a crime, I’m pretty sure he did it. If he didn't, arrest him anyway. I know this was just a movie, but I don't trust him anymore.

Now, on to more important things.

If there is a point to this movie, it escapes me. Perhaps the elusiveness of meaning, purpose, and hope is the point, which would be ironic and not a little sad.  Director Lee Daniels noted, “What I loved about that film is they were all lost, little, fragile birds, with several of them on a death wish. I think Nicole Kidman‘s character and Matthew McConaughey‘s character had death wishes... I can’t direct something I don’t know.” It remains unclear why he would love that.

I’m having a hard time putting into words to the moral vacuity of this film.  Jack is an adult (?)  paperboy who spends most of his day walking around in his underwear, looking at porn mags, remembering his glory days as a swimmer, and admiring his still inexplicably chiseled form. I think we were supposed to like him because he is not as racist as everybody else and he broods a lot. 

Ward is his brother, a hot shot reporter who returns to this small, sweltering Southern town to bring justice to a man on death row who has been falsely accused. I think we were supposed to like him because he is Matthew McConaughey, his closest associate is black (this is the 1960's), and he seems to be passionately committed to truth about this apparent injustice. 

John Cusack’s Hillary is what I imagine Edward Cullen would be in the real world. He is creepy, controlling, and frightening in his potential to destroy everyone he touches.  He does not deceptively sparkle in the sun; he wallows in the slime and darkness of the geographical and moral swamps through which he wades.  

Charlotte loves convicts. Having successfully finished a campaign of correspondence with (yet another) prisoner she has never met, she is now engaged to this wronged soul.  She’s pretty sure she can save him – or at least offer him good sex, which will apparently be enough.  Her first visit to see him in jail is monumentally, mind-numbingly inappropriate (and apparently largely made up by Cusack and Kidman on the spot, which is pretty disturbing in its own right). This was one of several scenes I did not finish watching. Let’s just say Charlotte's been around the cell block more than once. Sharon Stone must be kicking herself for not having lowered the bar more when she had the chance.

To prepare for her role, Kidman did a lot of research on women who pursue romance with prisoners. She noted, “From the women I've interviewed, when [the convicts] are out of prison, then it becomes too real. That comes from not wanting anything really intimate. Charlotte wants the fire but not the burn. It's dangerous territory.” Which is precisely why the movie should have navigated it with far more care. That level of dysfunction ought not be made so glamorous. 

Are you sensing a pattern? Everybody in the movie was horrible, except for the housekeeper/mother figure to Jack. I liked her. Even though the story is fiction, I felt bad that her character was stuck in such a narrative wasteland. Let's recap:
  •  Jack is a post-adolescent nightmare: childish, egotistical, lazy, obsessive, and in desperate need of pants. 
  • Ward is a self-destructive homosexual masochist with a death wish that eventually comes true. 
  • Hillary is a degenerate human being (imagine if one of the Gator Boys had no conscience, a family borrowed from Deliverance, and a collection of very sharp knives).
  • Charlotte is a tragically damaged man eater who uses sex as a tool to get her way (with Yardley), an act of begrudging pity (with Jack), and a method of trying to save a very bad boy who apparently just needs to get laid (Hillary). I cringed every time she was on the screen. In real life, we would weep for her instead of being entertained.
I’ve seen movies and read stories with a lot of darkness before. When done well, they simply set up the brilliance of the light. This story has a wealth of redemptive potential.  When that many people have that many dark sins, a gold mine of hope awaits. It's too bad nobody knew how dig for treasure of any kind.  I kept waiting for someone to change for the better, for someone to embrace a new kind of life, for someone to find light, life and hope.

But then the credits rolled as the final scene took the movie home: Jack driving a boat out of a swamp, accompanied by the dead bodies of two people he tried to save but couldn't.  The Paperboy may have peeled back a facade of evil, but I'm not sure that what we see underneath is any different.  I finished this movie with a renewed longing to offer hope to those who believe this is truly what life has to offer, as well as an appreciation for a very different story with a very different conclusion:

"For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do...I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand...Who will rescue me from this body infected by death? Thanks be to God that Jesus Christ rescues us." (Romans 7.18-25)

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