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DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013) review

November 24, 2013

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written by: Craig Borten and Melissa Wallace

produced by: Robbie Brenner, Nathan Ross & 

directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee

rating: R (for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use) 

runtime: 117 min.

U.S. release date: November 1, 2013

 

Within the past year, you may have seen some skinny pictures of actor Matthew McConaughey sporting a rail-thin emaciated look. That was for “Dallas Buyer’s Club”, which finds the native Texan continuing his streak of impressive performances that started with 2011‘s “Lincoln Lawyer” (and will likely carry on until the end of the year with “The Wolf of Wall Street”. Usually when actors take on real-life roles requiring they lose fifty pounds, people automatically think it’s a ploy for Oscar gold. Granted, there are times when the script and direction of the film may veer towards pretentiousness, but the two main performances are affective and meaningful, establishing an unexpectedly inspirational picture.

It’s 1985 and news has hit that actor Rock Hudson has died of AIDS, making him the first actor to die of a disease many did not understand at the time. Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a scrappy and scrawny Dallas electrician and frequent rodeo bull rider is shocked by the news that the seemingly heterosexual American actor died “a faggot’s disease”.

Irony calls when Ron is told he has AIDS during an ER visit after a work-related injury. The womanizer with an insatiable penchant for booze and drugs is enraged at the news,  releasing a homophobic tirade and insulting his treating physicians, Dr. Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) and Dr. Saks (Jennifer Garner). Regardless, he’s given thirty days to live and leaves with two middle fingers raised high.

 

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In his defiance, Ron loses himself in his regular destructive habits, hiding the shock and fear of his condition. When most of his co-workers and friends (one played by Steve Zahn) begin to ostracize him, Ron realizes he’ll be fighting this disease on his own. He begins taking the AZT, still in its testing phase, procuring the drug illegally only to discover that it’s making him worse, leaving him closer to death’s door. Desperate for alternate medication, Ron winds up in a run-down clinic in Mexico where he meets Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who informs him how toxic AZT is and introduces him to injections and pills unlicensed by the FDA.

After taking these drugs and seeing his condition turn around, Ron becomes both indignant and opportunistic, ready to fight the system back in the U.S. and make some cash at the same time. Following the formula popping up in other cities,  Ron forms the Dallas Buyers Club, supplying drugs to those with HIV positive, yet getting around the legalities of it all by charging a membership fee. He reluctantly partners with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender man who has access to the burgeoning gay community, pulling in new clientele for the club, while testing the limits of Ron’s homophobia. His growing business is noticed by the straight-arrow Dr. Saks, who unofficially assists the Club and finds a changed man in Ron, outliving his original prognosis and making an impact in the lives of many.

Like so many films with an ill protagonist, “Dallas Buyers Club” is based on a true story. Writers Craig Borten and Melissa Wallace worked off a 1992 article in The Dallas Morning News as inspiration for their screenplay. It’s undetermined just how accurate the film treats the real people and their actions though. I found myself wondering if Woodroof really went to the lengths we see unfold in the movie. Did he really go through such lengthy research on his own? Was it sheer determination or had he always had this investigative nature? Did he really dress up as a priest in order to avoid drug trafficking charges? Not having the answers to these questions never lessens McConaughey’s work here – if anything, his work made me want to know more about the life of the real Woodroof.

 

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One slight that “Dallas Buyers Club” has against it is how predictable the story feels. It may be that we’ve seen stories like this before, making it easy to see what part a character will eventually have in the story or where the pivotal moments will be in the movie. Director Jean-Marc Vallee uses an economic storytelling approach, while focusing on the uncomfortable realization of Woodroof coming to terms with his ailment and his eventual disintegration. Vallee often uses handled camerawork often (not all that dizzying though) and visual amplifies scenes where Woodroof’s ears are ringing or when his vision is blurring. There are times though, when it seems like Vallee and McConaughey are competing for our attention, when really only of them is needed to grab us.

McConaughey and Leto are terrific together, both of them benefitting from the presence of the other in each scene they’re in. Separately, the two pull off charismatic and tragic characters magnificently, but storywise, the film couldn’t succeed without both actors portraying characters that balance the other out. Rayon may be a static character, providing Ron with a mirror of his own prejudice towards homosexuality, which changes Ron a new perspective toward the way he views himself and others, Rayon remains the same doomed figure though. The two characters (and actors) need each other, but only one of them has a real dynamic arc. In a way, that aspect has a more realistic (less Hollywood) approach to it, but it does make the audience feel more for Leto’s portrayal. Rayon is the outcast in a society that didn’t know yet what to do with transgender individuals, while the charming Ron still has his hetero charm intact throughout.

I’d be interested to know if the character of Dr. Saks was a woman in real life, because Garner’s role seems like the screenwriters felt the need for a sympathetic woman in Rons’ life. The actress carries herself well, even though she’s often overshadowed by larger, more powerful performances.

Much is being said about the physical transformation that the two main actors underwent for their roles. It’s an unavoidable element of the picture, since that’s what we see first, but it’s never distracting thanks to the impressive work from McConaughey and Leto. It takes a little while to actually notice each actor is behind the character they play, which says quite a bit about the immersive power of their transformation. I can see why the weight loss was needed (McConaughey lost 50 lbs, while Leto lost 30), but given the convincing talent involved, I can see the two in these roles even without the weight loss.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is a guaranteed end-of-year “for your consideration” film, but it does offer more than just another buzzworthy film released during award season. Here’s a look at AIDS before all the extensive research became public. A look at identity loss and gradual death due to the disease and two particular men who refused to allow it to define who they were.

 

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RATING: *** 

 

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