Miami Times reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) returns home to Lately, Florida, with fellow journalist Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) to investigate a man named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), who may be wrongfully sentenced to death row.
Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) has recently returned from college where he lost his swimming scholarship and now delivers papers for his dad’s small-town newsrag.
Ward and Jack’s mother left the family some time ago, for reasons unknown, leaving Jack in search of maternal attention. Unfortunately, his ripe libido confuses his desires, as demonstrated in his complicated relationship with the Jansen family maid Anita (Macy Gray), who narrates the film.
If Ward and Yardley can prove Hillary Van Wetter is innocent of killing a cop, this will be the scoop of their career and launch them to journalistic fame. Their secret weapon is a woman named Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who has been obsessively writing love letters to the death-row inmate and believes she has proof of his innocence.
The combination of these misguided souls proves to be a devastating train wreck, particularly as hidden desires rise to the surface. Charlotte is a woeful yet strong-willed woman who oozes sex and has a strangely erotic first encounter with Hillary Van Wetter, who is so disturbingly creepy you wonder if she doesn’t have a death wish.
Sexual tension between Charlotte and Jack also rages out of control, especially after he’s stung by a jellyfish and she pees all over his buff and rippled body to alleviate the pain. Although Charlotte is old enough to be his mother, Jack falls tragically in love with her, and suffers deeply for it.
The scenes where Jack, Ward and Yardley travel into the backwoods swamp, attempting to collect evidence from the criminal’s family, are harrowing. Watching a strung-up alligator being gutted is the perfect visual symbol for the down and dirty emotional violence in the movie.
Nicole Kidman is fantastic as the southern sexpot who claims accused murderer Van Wetter is “not so bad, and I’m not so good.” Zac Efron is divine as the young man struggling to find himself in this complicated world of closeted sin, sex and disturbing violence.
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