Dallas Buyers Club – 2013
Director Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Griffin Dunne, Dennis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts, Kevin Rankin
Screenplay by Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
One of the unwritten rules of movie awards is weight loss or transformations of a dramatic nature leads to Golden Statues. This formula worked twice for Dallas Buyers Club in the most recent Academy Award ceremony, where McConaughey and Leto both picked up acting awards. Even so, it’s taken us a while to want to commit ourselves to this rendition of AIDS: How I got it, and how I beat the system for a while at least. The energy of both actors works in a large part to push the story through. The weight of the material is offset and the film rises above its grotesque beginnings to show that hope in any form is nearly as contagious as the disease that has wiped out so many.
Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is an emaciated man who is living life so dangerously hard, one can scarcely imagine how he has the energy to get out of bed. He is a racist, homophobic, drug and sex abuser. His world comes down around him as he discovers his condition after an accident at work. After a week of binging, he decides to start researching his situation. Early results give him the hope that AZT can help. After he resumes drugging and boozing, he has another incident which lands him in the hospital next to Rayon (Leto) who gives him a few ideas which eventually lead him to visiting a doctor in Mexico (Dunne) who changes his mind and his approach to battling the disease.
On the other side of the equation is a very simple version of the Feds and the Medical establishment. Wandering somewhere between is Garner’s Dr. Eve Saks, who has plenty of questions and not many answers. She spends much of the time here looking like a lost puppy. I am sure the story could have benefit from giving her more to do, as well a realistic presentation of the problems faced trying to cure an incurable disease. Here Woodroof’s nemesis seem to be a tad more complex than the bad guys in Norma Rae. Then again, Sally Field won for that film too, right?
I do appreciate choices made by McConaughey and Leto for what really are important roles. Perhaps it is too big a story to be contemplated with a few gross encounters of sex and drugs followed by an instant genius for how to recover against the wishes of The Man. There is some soul-searching, but I get it that 30 days they give you to live. Maybe it’s best if we take it as a series of portraits, assuming the right thing is happening in the background. Ultimately, one can see the humanity they express that has until now been easy for people unaffected by this disease to ignore.
Leto as what Woodruff would call him “a Tinkerbell” who has an obsession with Mark Bolan from T-Rex is amazing. His performance was criticized by some in the LBGT community for not being played by an actual transgender. Baby steps, folks. It’s safe to say he found the humanity of the character when most who watch the film would want him to survive.
McConaughey is in the stratosphere now. His performance, hamstrung as it is by the plot, is simply amazing. Between True Detective and Joe Nichols’ Mud, this could be his third best performance in the year 2013. It gives those of us who saw his talent in early work like Lone Star assurances that his potential is not limited by his good looks.
Dallas Buyers Club is a good film that might have been great if the script had matched the two prominent performances. Like Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind made a decade ago, the film makers leave out the more complex aspects of Woodroof’s character. He was had been married thrice and had a child. They say the reason they give is that they wanted to make the film more a “Character Study.” What they do, though, is to remove motivation and difficulty in presenting him as an irresponsible father. That kind of stuff might have given viewers pause, in their minds. The reality is they wanted as many butts in seats as possible. Seeing a wild, homophobe corralled into the Mother Theresa of AID’s research comes across as more relatable than a possibly bisexual man who was outrageous while not confrontational who possibly left his child abandoned during her teenage years.
Still, McConaughey and Leto’s performances resonate and will keep this movie in our memories for a while. It may even open a few hearts and minds. That is a lot to carry out at any time.
(***1/2 out of *****)