Dir. Lee Daniels
(2012, R, 107 minutes)

The Paperboy is a sharp left turn for director Lee Daniels following the breakthrough success of Precious in 2009. It’s a lurid drama set in 1960s Florida, and he does a good job of capturing the swampy, sweaty atmosphere of its crime-riddled setting. It’s a bit reminiscent of John McNaughton‘s Wild Things, which was also a story of sex and corruption in a humid Florida locale, though that film had more of a high-gloss sheen.

It also had a better plot. What ultimately hurts The Paperboy isn’t its melodrama or its sex – or that one scene where Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron – but its haphazard story. It stars Matthew McConaughey as Ward Jansen, a Miami reporter who returns to his small Florida hometown to investigate the murder of a local sheriff, for which Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is awaiting execution, but he may have been wrongly convicted.

Ward’s writing partner is Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), a black man from London who experiences first-hand the racism of the mid-century American South. Ward’s younger brother Jack (Efron) also finds himself involved in the investigation and becomes infatuated with one of its key subjects: Charlotte Bless (Kidman), who enjoys the distant affections of prison inmates and is engaged to marry Hillary.

There are various secrets revealed about Ward, Yardley, Hillary, and Charlotte, but most of them are vague or underexploited, and the central mystery gets lost in the shuffle. Daniels co-wrote the film with Peter Dexter, based on Dexter’s novel; I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment on its storytelling, but Daniels seems more interested in style than in developing a cohesive plot. Stylistically he mostly succeeds, but after the stage is set the film fails to build towards a satisfying payoff. It drifts around the margins of the story, and then it ends.