With some notable exceptions (William Faulkner and Graham Greene spring to mind), novelists often struggle to adapt their skills to filmmaking – the book and the screenplay are two different creatures altogether.
Peter Dexter is an American crime writer whose forte is murder, usually among poor white trash, and I was submerged from go to whoa in this gritty tale set in the Florida bayou country. It is about the freeing of Hilary (John Cusack), an inmate wrongly convicted and awaiting execution on death row – but there is a certain messiness in its construction that tends occasionally to make it wobble at its foundations. Most problematic is the narration throughout of Anita (Macy Gray), a black maid in the household of newspaper family, the Jansens. Her status is lowly, but her relationship with the youngest, Jack (Zac Efron), is close and affectionate.
The movie opens with her telling an unseen interviewer the background to the killing of a corrupt sheriff. Though having no involvement in events, Anita’s explanatory voice-over then comes and goes as we follow the efforts to clear Hilary by journo Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), brother Jack, fellow investigator Yardley (David Oyelowo) and Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), who writes letters to blokes in jail.
The trouble is, Anita provides us with information that she cannot possibly have been privy to and, in so doing, her testimony dilutes the PoV of Jack, whose story it is. There is also a gratuitous homophobic rape scene that might easily have found its way to the cutting room floor without being missed, but otherwise this is a sleazy, sweaty drama of captivating nastiness.
Kidman is especially good as the slutty boiler in a tiny pink dress who has been corresponding with Hilary since he was incarcerated. As for Cusack, he surpasses even John Jarratt in Wolf Creek for repulsiveness – the simulated sex indulged in by Hilary and Charlotte when they first meet, in front of the others, is as down and dirty as you could imagine. Terrifically noir.