The Paperboy: Down and Dirty with Zac, Matthew and Nicole

Southern Gothic sex drives this lurid melodrama from the director of 'Precious'

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For pure shock value, few scenes from this year’s movies can equal the moment in The Paperboy when a swim-suited Zac Efron suffers a jellyfish sting on a Florida beach and, as lovely young things flutter around him, Nicole Kidman pushes through to cauterize Efron’s wounds by squatting and urinating on them. “If anyone’s gonna piss on him,” Kidman announces, “it’s gonna be me.”

Wretched excess, or divine decadence? A racially charged drama, or a demented, deadpan comedy? A wallow in depravity, or a demonstration of the seductive appeal of transgressive behavior? Director Lee Daniels’ film may be some or all of the above. It is hard to categorize and, for people who get on its weird, fluctuating wavelength, harder to resist.

(READ: Mary Corliss’s and Mary Pols’ reviews of Precious)

What must be said about Daniels’ first film since his award-winning Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire is that, unlike many movie excursions into the racial tensions of 50 years ago, The Paperboy actually has a pulse; it revels in the lure of the lurid. Working with Pete Dexter to adapt his 1995 novel to the screen, Daniels barges into that mythical land, the American South, takes root in the sins of the flesh and the soul, and digs deep, down and dirty.

Jack James (Efron), the younger son of the local newspaper publisher (Scott Glenn) in Moat County, is charming and callow, overshadowed by the reputation of his brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), who’s become a big-city journalist. Ward is back in Moat, with his black-reporter friend Yardley (David Oyelowo), to investigate the murder trial of a local sheriff. Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), the backwoods layabout who is on Death Row for the crime, had an airtight alibi that was not allowed into evidence. Now Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a jailbird Jenny who courted Hillary while he was in prison, says she has two boxes of letters that will afford the convict a new trial.

(READ: Richard Corliss on the late blooming of Matthew McConaughey)

People can be attracted to celebrity or to notoriety, to those soaring above them and to the bottom-feeders swimming below. As Charlotte warmed to the plight and the danger of a Death Row inmate, so the naïve Jack falls for the pretty, trashy Charlotte. The family maid (Macy Gray) says that Charlotte was for Jack “a high-school sweetheart, his mama and a Barbie [doll] all in one.” Jack wants to bite into forbidden fruit; and Charlotte, for whom sex is as natural as heavy breathing, doesn’t mind pleasing an inexperienced young man.

Although the general territory has been well plowed before — by generations of Southern novelists, by Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan in the 1956 film Baby Doll and in the deliciously decadent Wild Things in 1998 — Daniels cultivates it with a fresh African-American perspective on a patch of rural Florida at the end of the ’60s. He has changed the race of some of Dexter’s characters from white to black, but the mood is starkly different from Precious. That tale of social rehabilitation showed a teenage girl lifted from Harlem poverty and family degradation by a helpful teacher. In The Paperboy, a naïve young middle-class man and his brother are dragged down toward tragedy by several species of white trash.

(READ: Richard Corliss on Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole)

Assembling this impressive cast, Daniels puts them through a boot camp of intense emotions and sensational indignities. All the actors rise or bend to the challenge, giving juicy performances and seemingly having a fine old time. McConaughey, who shifted mid-career from a friendly satyr in Hollywood romantic comedies to a leading light of independent cinema, brings a watchful intelligence to the role of Ward, a man of secrets and tragedy. And Efron edges from feckless boy-man, flirting in his underpants with the black maid, to achieve the hard-won maturity of the disenchanted.

The revelation, however, is Kidman’s performance. Renouncing the goddess image she has so frequently assumed, her Charlotte is a ripe, feral creature, working all her sexual wiles just for exercise. With a risky mixture of precision and abandon, Kidman splendidly creates a vision of Southern womanhood at its most toxic. She is the doom-driven vixen in this modern film noir, where the blinding brightness of the Sunshine State cannot conceal humanity’s darkest impulses.