Monday, November 11, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club (**1/2)

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee


It's hard not to feel like Matthew McConaughey's recent career resurgence is reaching its crescendo here with Dallas Buyers Club. It's a striking performance, so captivating and virile. He famously lost 35 pounds, and its a testament to the performance that it doesn't feel too much like stunt acting. It's a juicy role, one that's screams out for awards attention, but McConaughey plays it without shame, and even at times without decency. That is to say, by avoiding the obvious way to play the role, he made it seem like that was the obvious way all along. This is what happens when you get the right movie star to play the right part - this was also proven with Tom Hanks in Captain Philips and Robert Redford in All is Lost. But what about the movie itself? Dallas Buyers Club's premise is problematic on its own, but what's to say of its execution, which nearly forces us to feel compassion for a homophobic bigot and an AIDS profiteer? Shouldn't that matter at all? It's a film that requires a lot of unpacking, even if it does supply a highly watchable two hours.

The film is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a hard-partying, drug-addicted sex maniac with a taste for bull riding. Ron loves to gamble on the bull rides, but he also likes gambling in all aspects of his life, with caution not necessarily something he likes to practice - he may not even know the definition. The year is 1986, and the AIDS virus has been wrecking havoc on America, but its victims have been mostly filtered toward drug addicts and homosexual men. The film makes a point to show a newspaper declaring the death of movie star Rock Hudson to AIDS, and Ron is quick to declare his disgust that Hudson would be a "cocksucker". Ron and his friends work together in construction, Ron being an electrician, and afterward they usually grab a beer at their favorite bar, a large confederate flag displayed upon the wall. These are not tolerant men, and like most of the country, they could care less about what's happening with "the gay disease".

Ron is so ignorant of disease, in fact, that when his doctor, Dr. Sevard (David O'Hare), informs him that he's contracted HIV, Ron's convinced that they mixed up his blood samples because he is not gay. Sevard and his fellow physician, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), do their best to explain to Ron the severity of his situation. Coldly, Sevard tells Ron that he's projected to live only for the next thirty days. As word of his disease reaches his friends, they suddenly pull away, distancing themselves from him. At one point they openly accuse him of being a homosexual. Without friends, he strikes out alone drinking and partying harder. He learns of a new drug being tested on patients called AZT that pharmaceutical companies are pushing on hospitals as the first potential drug to defeat AIDS. Ron pays a janitor at the hospital in cash so that he can get some, and combining that with all of the drugs and alcohol he's consuming, his health quickly diminishes to dangerous levels, his weight dropping rapidly.

The film's first forty-five minutes details Ron's tsunamic self-destruction after contracting HIV, and its a fascinatingly ridiculous sequence of scenes made intriguing because of McConaughey's seemingly manic commitment to the role. There's a certain vanity to an actor that thinks that becoming as skinny as McConaughey does here is some kind of key to unlocking the source of a performance, but McConaughey takes all the vanity out of it because he plays its so incredibly ugly - it's like a reverse of what Robert DeNiro did with Raging Bull. At his lowest moment, Ron travels to Mexico when the janitor can no longer supply him with AZT. After collapsing in a hospital, Ron wakes up with a hippy doctor (Griffin Dunne) explaining to him that AZT was killing his immune system and making him worse. He gives him some medicines that can help him with his AIDS symptoms, all drugs that are unapproved in the United States. This is when Ron thinks up an idea: if you could get these unapproved drugs into the US, there's quite a lot of money to be had.

This is where the film turns, and becomes a much more conventional caper. It also adds the movie's most entertaining element: a transexual cocaine-addict named Rayon (Jared Leto). Rayon meets Ron in the hospital as they're both being treated by Dr. Saks. Ron is initially and instantaneously cantankerous towards Rayon, but his attitude is punctured when Rayon turns out to be a pretty good poker player. With Ron's resources and Rayon's networking abilities within the Dallas gay community, the two start a partnership and launch the Dallas Buyers Club out of a motel room. With Ron supplying the drugs from Mexico, members pay a $400 monthly fee and get as many drugs as they need. Ron and Rayon are able to make a terrific amount of money, but they also gather the attention of Dr. Sevard and the FDA who do not appreciate how Ron is circumventing the pharmaceutical industry, bringing drugs yet to be approved straight to the people. With the original plan of making some money, Ron ends up becoming an unlikely face for AIDS activists fighting against the FDA dragging their feet to get the right drugs to the people.

Like Fruitvale Station earlier in the year, the film does a well enough job of inciting outrage in its audience over the social injustices that it represents, even if its methods are pretty obvious. But Fruitvale was a story that was meant to be dramatized earnestly and inspire tears, where Dallas Buyers takes the Ron Woodroof story and makes it that way. If you try to think of the way that Alexander Payne or Stephen Soderbergh would have attacked this material, it makes you a little sad that they decided to the American redemption route (watch Payne's Citizen Ruth or Soderbergh's The Informant! to get an idea of how they feel about morally ambiguous characters). The director, Jean-Marc Vallee, is so committed to avoiding cynicism and making Ron Woodroof a hero, it's pretty silly. There's few things America loves more then a reformed asshole, and Woodroof certainly fits the bill here, but was there really any reformation? Sure, Ron's relationship with Rayon seems to prove that Ron cracked his homophobia, but that never would have happened if HIV hadn't brought Ron to the brink of death. And Ron's crusading against the FDA only began so Ron cold make a mega-profit off of these unapproved drugs.

But what Dallas Buyers Club certainly has in its corner is a committed cast that takes Vallee's sincerity and dares to take it to heart. Jared Leto has always been an actor of extreme transformations (his sweaty junkie in Requiem for a Dream; his fattening up to play Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27), but his efforts have always come off as trying too hard - with more focus on the process than the actual performance. But as Rayon, Leto gets just as dangerously skinny as McConaughey, and he takes a character that should have just been a cartoon character, and makes it a fascinating persona, a space where Jared Leto's overacting actually makes sense. As Eve Saks, Jennifer Garner continues her trend of terrific performances in under-written roles. There's something almost comical about taking a talented actress like Garner, and making her the romantic interest of a man with AIDS, but Garner's exceptional performance is sweet and sincere, a moral center in the middle of a row of characters practicing debauchery (Woodroof and Rayon) and immorality (her fellow doctors and pharma reps).

But this is all about McConaughey, and his performance here is perfectly suited to his persona. McConaughey isn't a great actor, he doesn't have a terrible amount of range nor does he transcend character the way a Fassbender or Day-Lewis does. But he's a fascinating movie star, who's finally filtered out all of the roles that made him a joke for the better part of the early 2000's. I wouldn't be surprised to see McConaughey and Leto wind up with Oscar nominations next year. But I can certainly understand how many could find this film problematic. Last year's Oscar-nominated documentary How To Survive a Plague showed that there were plenty of gay figures at the head of the fight against the pharmaceuticals companies and AIDS research. But Dallas Buyers Club keeps gays on the periphery, the same way films like To Kill a Mockingbird and Mississippi Burning were apparently about Civil Rights and kept blacks in the background. I think Hollywood could find a way to tell an early AIDS story that doesn't have a homophobic cowboy as its hero.

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