Monday, April 21, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O'Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O' Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin
Running Time: 116 min
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The generally held assumption when someone knows they're nearing the end of their life is that they reach some kind of peace or contemplative resignation, quietly accepting their fate since there's no choice to do otherwise. Then there's Ron Woodruff. He's a homophobic bull rider and electrician who in 1985 contracts AIDS after having unprotected sex with a prostitute. He's given a month to live and Dallas Buyers Club tells the true-life story of how he managed to stretch that 30-day death sentence to seven years by sheer determination and ingenuity. It also represents the crowning pinnacle of what's been called by many (including the actor himself) as the "McConaughssance" of Matthew McConaughey's career, earning him a Best Actor Oscar few thought could ever be within his reach based on his previous choices.

Of course, the running joke when photos first surfaced of the alarmingly thin actor on set was that he was sure to win an Academy Award. While there's definite truth in that, it short changes all the other things he does masterfully in the role aside from undergoing a dangerous physical transformation. Lost in this conversation is that the movie's also pretty good, as director Jean-Marc Vallée uses the complexity of this character and his lead actor's performance to turn what could have been a dated, sappy issue piece into something that at least feels a little different from other films in this genre.

It's 1985, in the midst of a seemingly uncontrollable HIV epidemic, made that much worse by the media playing it up as a homosexual disease that should have little impact on guys like Ron Woodruff (McConaughey), a man's man who rides bulls and downs beers with his buddies. Upon first receiving the diagnosis, he goes into denial mode, lashing out at the doctors trying to help him, all while being ostracized by everyone he knows and finding out first-hand it's a virus that very much carries a stigma. With his health rapidly deteriorating and AZT side effects taking their toll, he finds a way to smuggle an illegal AIDS drug across the border, working with and befriending a transgender patient named Rayon (Jared Leto). With the reluctant endorsement of Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), they take on the FDA and hospital beaurocracy, opening the "Dallas Buyers Club" to distribute drugs to  ailing patients that hopefully extend their lives.

That an angry bigot like Ron contracts the AIDS virus seems like a cruel twist right out of a Twilight Zone episode, and that irony is smartly played up in the script's opening half. It's fitting that one of the first images we see is a newspaper headline that Rock Hudson has AIDS, as Ron uses the word "fag" numerous times to vent his feelings on it. His reaction to that news and much of what happens before his diagnosis sets Ron up as being almost terminally unlikable. That McConaughey shows little fear in actually "going there" is why the rest of the film works better than it could have, especially when he falls victim to the prejudices and insults he's guilty of dishing out at the beginning of the film.

Arrogant and stubborn, Ron lives fast and plays hard, though it's clear very early from his emaciated appearance that something's drastically wrong. When the outlook is dire, the very same qualities we hated become almost a call to arms against the FDA and all the doctors in bed with them.Through this, McConaughey never loses the character's confident swagger and Ron becomes relatively easy to root for, even if circumstances drove to the point he's at. If anything, this is a more unflattering portrayal of Woodruff than expected, with the film's first half far exceeding its second. Once it gets into the details of the Buyer's Club and he and Dr. Saks' battle with Dr. Sevard (Denis O'Hare), it becomes more of a medical procedural. But it's a strong one nonetheless, backed up by our investment in a motivated protagonist fighting for his life. That's all McConaughey.

Receiving nearly as much attention as is Supporting Actor Oscar winner Jared Leto, whose role as a transgender woman gets less screen time than you might have imagined going in. The debate as to whether the Rayon role should have actually been played by a real transgender seems irrelevant to the actual performance, which accomplishes exactly what it should. As easy as it is to harp on the notion of Leto in drag, his very best scene comes when he's out of it, sans makeup and donning a business suit to ask his estranged father for money as he slowly wastes away. That the developing friendship between Ron and Rayon doesn't feel forced or play like a preachy lesson in tolerance is a credit to what both actors bring to the table. Garner also turns in strong work as the doctor who slowly realizes the course of treatment has to change if any patient is to have a chance of survival moving forward. 

Portrayed as neither a saint nor a hero, Woodruff was a desperate man with a great idea that happened to be illegal and a surprisingly restrained script doesn't attempt to paint Woodruff as anything other than that. While strongly executed by all involved, unpredictability still isn't likely to be singled out as one of the bigger selling points here, even considering it's based on a true story. The only thing anyone will remember about Dallas Buyers Club is McConaughey, but isn't that usually the case with performances that win competitive acting Oscars? It's always easier to name the actor than the movie they won for. But the good news for him is that it recently could have been a number of them.

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