Film Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Early on in Dallas Buyers Club Matthew McConaughey’s character, rodeo cowboy and electrician Ron Woodroof, is diagnosed with HIV. The two doctors who deliver this news, one being a soulless bureaucrat (Denis O’Hare), the other a bleeding heart (Jennifer Garner), attempt to outline the severity of his condition, finally telling him that he has only 30 days left to live. Woodroof however is indomitable, exclaiming that there is nothing on Earth that can kill him in 30 days, before striding out of the hospital in a confident huff.

Now it may seem silly and perhaps even offensive to compare the plight of one who really did suffer (and eventually die) from HIV-AIDS with the career fluctuations of a famous Hollywood actor. Yet, on a very general level the emotional dynamics of the two men, the actor and the real life subject, seem congruent; you can’t keep either one of them down. Continuing with his recent trend of professional resurgence McConaughey is very effective here. His performance and the writing behind it is very much responsible for why Dallas Buyers Club works as well as it does.

McConaughey’s career turn-around is something of a marvel, and by now has been so well-reported on that it would be redundant to write much about it. Essentially, after reaching a career nadir in 2010 with the Ghosts of Girlfriend’s Past, which was his follow-up to the equally inane Sufer Dude (produced through McConaughey’s ‘Just Keep Livin’ production company), his professional choices dramatically (and thankfully) shifted. It’s not that the world didn’t enjoy his shenanigans. When you’ve got a mug like that and such a goofy, affable nature its hard to be truly unlikable. Yet, it is safe to say that McConaughey had become a bit of a joke by the beginning of this current decade. His silly California-esque vibe evoked more thoughts about his naked bongo playing than his potential for serious, engaged performances.

Of course that has all changed in the past three years. The actor being on a tear, oscillating between genres and delivering superlative excellent work each time. From Bernie and The Lincoln Lawyer, to Magic Mike and Killer Joe, to finally this year’s Dallas Buyers Club, the vestiges of Fool’s Gold and Sahara now seem like barely perceptible memories of a bygone time. In Dallas Buyers Club McConaughey reaches further towards mainstream, awards-baiting work than ever before. This works both for and against him, and the film itself. Part of the reason why Dallas Buyers Club is successful is that the film largely eschews overt sentimentality. Despite being a highly dramatic story the film’s leading actor plays the part largely devoid of melodrama. The result is a characterization of Woodroof that is consistently engaging, but also results with many of his larger dramatic moments feel curiously unaffecting. This is probably because McConaughey is one of the most cerebral actors in mainstream Hollywood. He is usually too meta, too aloof from the audience. When he is used effectively there may in fact be nobody more interesting in a given role. Yet, while McConaughey’s real-life persona helps turn Woodruff into such a vibrant screen-character, you also aren’t moved strongly by his moments of pain and despondency.

This is where Jared Leto’s performance comes in, which is the nexus of the film’s emotional pull. Like McConaughey, Leto is nearly unrecognizable in his role as Rayon, playing a transvestite also afflicted with AIDS. He is revelatory, suggesting depth which far exceeds anything viewers who followed My So Called Life could have ever predicted. Watching Leto in Dallas Buyers Club is a bizarre experience. All you can do is ask yourself questions. Is this the blonde guy who Ed Norton beat to a pulp in Fight Club? Is this the stringy-haired twirp who Ellen Burstyn acted circles around in Requiem for a Dream? Amazingly, it is the same man. His performance, while bleak as all hell, is actually equal to McConaughey’s magnetic pull. It is these two characters coming together, learning to see each other as good people, that makes up much of Dallas Buyers Club’s power.

The script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack is able to eloquently suggest the development of this relationship, and largely avoids telegraphing the moments where there are big changes in the dynamic between Ron and Rayon. Less successful is the formation of Woodroof’s social conscience, which is expressed during a scene where he says that he wants his life to “mean something.” Ok, that’s a noble enough goal I suppose but one not seamlessly executed here. The film shows Woodroof, who has taken to importing non-FDA-approved drugs to treat HIV-AIDS patients, initially with less than altruistic intentions. His character is a businessman first a humanitarian second. This is a positive thing. It is far more congruent with human nature. When we meet him at first Ron is a bastard and vehemently homophobic. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to show him immediately committed to helping people, especially when a majority of his customers are gay. The problem is that we never exactly know what more he wants from his life by the end of the film. What don’t understand what he wants his life to mean. This is a narrative misstep because the ending of the film is obviously designed to provoke some sort of celebratory response. However it actually feels emotionally muted.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee walks a fine line with Dallas Buyers Club. He is tasked with not only depicting the growth of his lead character in a realistic fashion, but also making a comment on the social and governmental response to the AIDS epidemic without resorting to simple caricature. It is safe to say that the film’s time period is evoked effectively on a visual level. It possesses the washed-out color palette and hand-held cameras required to communicate that late 1970’s – early 1980’s vibe. Thematically though we become mired in what amounts to nearly faceless figures of authority and unnuanced bigotry. This dilutes the overall specificity of the film’s message. For a story which features a central character cloaked in shades of grey  the film’s other elements, such as uncaring forces in law enforcement or the unholy ignorance of Woodroof’s shitkicker friends, position Ron as a populist crusader. Thankfully, the casting of McConaughey doesn’t allow for that. You are constantly aware that there are a multitude of motivations raging within his character.

The depiction of the time-period of Dallas Buyers Club however is perhaps rather nugatory, because the film is far more invested in its central character than the story of HIV. For the most part this is advantageous, as McConaughey is more than up to the challenge of playing Woodroof. His physical transformation is on its own remarkable, as is the tumultuous inner life that he creates for the character. What’s unfortunate is that the film does not seem to know how to balance the character’s complexity. It attempts to approach him with sly perspicacity regarding the egocentricity that defines most human behavior. Yet through its characterization of the world he inhabits it ineluctably also wraps him in the robe of a populist freedom-fighter. Still, if we can say anything about Dallas Buyers Club is that it is yet another step away from the light, forgettable, cookie-cutter rom-coms that carved out a decade of McConaughey’s professional life. The days of  palling around with Kate Hudson, stealing smooches from Penelope Cruz, or fighting dragons with Christian Bale seem to finally have been put to bed.

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