Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) is an American journalist who has relocated to San Juan, Puerto Rico as a freelance writer in the 1950s. He’s hired by a not-so-great American newspaper to write the daily horoscopes. At first he thinks it’s a joke, but alas, it is not.
As the film unfolds, there’s a tension in the air, and I don’t mean the rum-aroma air that almost seeps through the screen. There is a tension existing inside Paul Kemp. As he sits at Al’s bar with Chenault (Amber Heard) he tells her, “I don’t know how to write like me.” From the beginning of the film, we see this struggle. After witnessing his first Puerto Rican cock fight, Paul wanders off with a camera. He snaps some pictures of the local children in a trash dump. He then writes a story about the children eating in the dump. He wants to draw the attention of the reader to this great injustice. It’s rejected by the editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). “Nothing will change,” Lotterman reasons. “You underestimate me,” Kemp replies.
But it’s possible that Kemp underestimates himself. He flounders from wanting to write pieces that will make a difference, to writing for survival. He begins working for American businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) that, Kemp quickly learns, is a part of a property scheme with other businessmen from the United States. He turns his head away from the corrupt activities, for the pleasure of having a car, getting paid in advance, and being around the beautiful Chenault.
Kemp is thrown into a moral dilemma. And his “voice” is what is at stake.
After a series of events, Kemp takes a stand. And he finds an enemy in Sanderson, who cuts him off from the loyalties he was extending to Kemp. Now stuck in a place where he stood up for what he thought was right, and a place where there is no money coming in, Kemp and his roommate photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) participate in some recreational drug activity, which sends the characters (and the viewers) into a few strange moments as they roam the streets of San Juan high. Kemp stops at a lobster tank, and as he peers inside, he reflects, “Human beings are the only creatures on earth who claim a God, but act like they don’t.”
For Kemp, this is where things begin to change. Chenault shows up at his door, now dressed in white (to represent the new beginning that is about to unfold). He goes home, and in his strange state of mind he writes all night about the corruption he experienced under Sanderson. He finds his voice and makes a promise: “I want to make a promise to you, the reader. And I don’t know if I can fulfill it tomorrow, or even the day after that. But I put the bastards of this world on notice, that I do not have their best interest at heart. I will try and speak for my reader. That is my promise.”
The tension Kemp had to deal with was his own. It was a struggle within himself. A struggle many of us know too well. A struggle between seeing the injustice, like small children eating what they can in the trash dump, and doing something about that which we’ve seen. There are the Lotterman voices telling us that nothing will change and we just have to “go with the flow.” But we don’t have to listen to those voices. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, it is never too late for a new beginning. Never too late to find your voice. Never too late to recognize God’s presence in and around us. For we aren’t like other creatures… we claim a God of new beginnings.