Dallas Buyers Club – A Review

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2013 is clearly Matthew McConaughey’s year.

The McConaughey career rehabilitation train has been picking up steady steam since 2012 with his stellar turns in Killer Joe, Bernie, Magic Mike and The Paperboy. Those were mostly supporting roles, but reminded people that the poor guy had been held hostage previously in films that were not worthy of his talent.  McConaughey isn’t just a guy who likes to play the bongos without a stitch of clothing on; behind that pretty face and laid back demeanor is a really talented actor.

McConaughey raised the stakes earlier this year with his lead role in Mud, which is still one of my favorite films of the year. That film in and of itself would have been enough for a great year, but then McConaughey had to double down and totally transform himself for Dallas Buyers Club, a film that he fought to have made. He is once again amazing, shedding 40 pounds off his already lean build to portray a man with AIDS. The weight loss in and of itself isn’t noteworthy – actors manipulating their weight for a role isn’t all that uncommon (though the result here is quite jarring) – but it is symbolic of his dedication and commitment to bringing the life of Ron Woodroof to the big screen. McConaughey is definitely in the Oscar conversation with this performance.

Dallas Buyers Club takes place in 1985 and tells the story of Woodroof, an electrician and gambler who contracts HIV from unprotected sex with multiple partners. A straight man who is homophobic, he initially is in denial about his diagnosis and is shocked that he is viewed as a pariah by his friends and acquaintances. Given 30 days to live, Woodroof begins smuggling drugs in from other countries that are no approved by the FDA but that have had success in combating the virus. Always looking to make some money, Woodroof creates the Dallas Buyers Club which provides paying members with these contraband drugs; he is assisted in this endeavor by a transgender woman Rayon (Jared Leto), who is also HIV positive and can garner Woodroof entrance in the LGBT community. Now an outsider in his community, Woodroof has to reexamine some of his prejudices while struggling to survive and elude prosecution by the FDA.

What I liked about Dallas Buyers Club is that it doesn’t shy away from showing that Woodroof is a complicated person; while his attitudes are no surprising for the time period and the prevailing misconceptions about AIDS at the time, it is hard to not judge his prejudice harshly by 2013 standards. This is a man who is helping a lot of people, but he isn’t necessarily motivated by a spirit of charity but by promises of profit. Always a hustler, Woodroof is always looking for an angle to work; he exploits sympathetic doctor Eve Sacks (Jennifer Garner) to further his cause, with no thought to the consequences for her professionally. He is an imperfect hero.

And yet – McConaughey brings such charm and swagger to the role that you can’t help but like Woodroof despite it all. Woodroof is a scrapper and even with McConaughey’s weakening appearance there is a vitality to his performance; even as his body fails him, his spirit refuses to give in. He’ll find a way to survive if for no other reason than to prove the doctors and his friends wrong. Even when his motives are less than pure, you like Woodroof despite of it and that’s all because of McConaughey. There is a compassion to his performance that slowly reveals itself as Woodroof begins to re-evaluate his preconceived notions. He is a hard man that has lived a hard life, but there is a slow softening to him as he understands that gay men may not be as different from him as he thought. Tragedy makes strange bedfellows and one of the strengths of the film is the uneasy partnership that forms between Rayon and Woodroof.

As spectacular as McConaughey is, Leto somehow finds to be just as good. Leto undergoes his own transformation as Rayon and is absolute perfection. Leto hasn’t had many opportunities to really dig into a movie lately and he makes the most of this role.  Rayon has had more experience in the outsiders club than Woodroof and is a survivor in her own way. But there is also a heartbreaking vulnerability to Rayon that reveals that she may not be as tough as she pretends. The interplay between Woodroof and Rayon is magic; every time Leto is on the screen you just can’t take your eyes off him. Leto becomes Rayon and it is something to behold.

McConaughey and Leto

McConaughey and Leto

In a time when AIDS is not a death sentence, it is important to look back on the terror and misconceptions that shrouded the disease in the early 80s. I was only a kid when AIDS was “discovered,” but I vividly remember the stories on the news and the common belief that this was a disease that only targeted gay men (who “deserved” to be punished). There was so much false information and such politicization of the quest for a cure or viable treatment. Dallas Buyers Club reminds us of that chapter of our recent history and how scared everyone was and serves as an indication of just how far we’ve come in twenty years.

There has been some criticism that given that the LGBT community was hit hardest by the AIDS epidemic during this time period that it would have been better if a movie like Dallas Buyers Club had a gay protagonist rather than telling a straight man’s story. Buyers Clubs were formed in many major cities, mostly run by gay men. I am sympathetic to this complaint, as many stories of minority struggle are told primarily through the point of view of a member of the majority (see many a civil rights movie like The Help). But while I don’t diminish that critique, I think that Dallas Buyers Club was a movie worth making because it reinforces that AIDS is a disease that does not discriminate. And the fact that the film had trouble securing financing, even with a straight protagonist, indicates that this was a hard story to sell. I think it is preferable that some version of this story is told, rather than not be told at all; however, to see an excellent documentary about this time and the struggle for a cure, watch the Oscar nominated How to Survive a Plague.

Some other thoughts:

  • You wouldn’t think that there would be a lot of laughs in a movie about such a tragic story about people desperate for a cure, but McConaughey and Leto also bring some humor to their roles. The occasional levity is appreciated.
  • The one thing that completely took me out of this movie was Jennifer Garner. I’m sorry to say it, but I just don’t think that she’s that great of an actress and the role was not well drawn. I would have cut her role to give more screen time to Leto. Garner sadly added little to this film. Sorry Mrs. Affleck – you seem like a really nice person.
  • You can read the Dallas Morning News article that inspired the movie here.
  • While the stigma and struggle to find a way to manage HIV/AIDS seems somewhat dated, the idea of one man fighting the medical establishment resonates with today’s political climate.
  • Hey – Steve Zahn is in this movie! I’m way behind on Treme, so it’s been a while since I’ve seen this guy. Glad to see him get some work.
  • Ahh…the old days when you had to do research on microfiche.
  • McConaughey has one more movie to come out this year with a Christmas release for The Wolf of Wall Street. Will he pull off a hat trick?
  • Had I been on my game, I would have posted this review yesterday to be closer to World AIDS Day.

Dallas Buyers Club is a great movie thanks to a pair of strong performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. The duo is absolutely fearless in their portrayals and both should be considered when Oscar nominations are announced. The film tackles a serious subject, but also manages to be entertaining; Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t feel like homework. The events in this film took place less than two decades ago, but that somehow feels like a lifetime ago – that doesn’t mean that there isn’t real value in revisiting this struggle. With only a month left to go in 2013, Dallas Buyers Club has definitely found itself a spot on my list of best films of the year.

And honestly….I can’t wait to see what McConaughey has in store for us in 2014.

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