Release: Friday, November 1, 2013 (limited)
AIDS sucks. Rednecks’ treatment of animals sucks. The government sucks. For everything else that doesn’t suck, there’s Dallas Buyers Club.
Ron Woodruff would probably approve of my spin on the Mastercard jingle. Well, all except the part about the treatment of animals, as he’s a cowboy himself and couldn’t care less about a raging bull’s balls.
To go off on a little tangent here (because rodeos really make me upset since I think the sport epitomizes the term ‘pointless’) bullriders are mysterious creatures to me. Well, sad really. They sit atop an animal more than five times their size, an animal they’re about to make feel half the size of human beings because the whole point is to dominate the animal for eight seconds; an animal that’s recently and intentionally been enraged by getting its genitalia vice-gripped by some
retard rodeo clown. Riders ironically then have this look of terror on their face as soon as the ride begins. When they either succeed or fail at maintaining that short period of time professionally molesting the animal, they run away (or get trampled). Game over. They get points and recognition out of this somehow.
Though the redneck quota may be sky-high, thankfully this film from Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée doesn’t focus too terribly much on this grim aspect of certain cultures. Interestingly enough, it errs on the side of the inhumanity towards other humans. In the mid-1980s the height of the fear and misunderstanding surrounding the HIV/AIDS virus had reached its pinnacle. Those who had it were the quote-unquote undesirable types — homosexuals, intravenous drug users, losers, etcetera. This was a disease generally viewed as one that people ‘deserved.’
So when rowdy old Ron (McConaughey) collapses in his trailer home one day and finds himself in the hospital when he next wakes up, the news that he has HIV and hence why he’s so weak lately comes as a great shock. His level of ignorance and intolerance at first matches that of the nation’s in this decade. He can’t stand the idea that he could possibly get a disease like this: “There ain’t nothin’ that can take Ron Woodruff down in 30 days.” While his T-cell count may be down to nine, his brain cell count has to be even lower. However, he’s not so stupid as to avoid researching his situation. And sure as hellfire he discovers that indeed, having drunken and unprotected sex in the filth and squalor of a trailer park with ghastly-looking whores, well shucks. . . that’d sure do it.
That I started off not having high opinions of this character of McConaughey’s speaks to the quality of his performance. After seeing him earlier this year in Mud, it seemed the standard had been set then and there for Best Male Lead Performance, and since then there’s only been maybe a handful of others who might give the titular character a run for his money. But I have a feeling come the Oscars the conversation will oddly not include that role; instead it will focus on his skinny-jeans Ron Woodruff. You will start out hating this man and all of his ridiculous insecurities and phobias, yet come the end of the film you may or may not be weeping for him. Depends on how sturdy you are as a filmgoer, I suppose.
That we end up feeling anything for Woodruff at all, though, is credited to Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack and their superb writing — writing that brings rough-around-the-edges characters front-and-center and making them compelling to watch. Woodruff may be a bit of a misanthrope (aren’t all rednecks?) but his motivation for staying alive makes who and what he is that much more complex. While he almost can’t stand being around gay people or transexuals or what-have-you, everything he does in Dallas Buyers Club post-doctor visit is for the betterment of not only himself, but for those who he deems worthy of a fighting chance of survival (anyone who can afford to be in his Buyers Club, that is).
Inspired by events he’s heard about happening in other parts of the country, he starts up a highly illegal Buyers Club of his own in a hotel in Dallas, with the sole purpose being to serve as an alternative treatment center for those with the disease. His experiences with hospitals and advanced medical care — stuff that hasn’t been working at all — has led him to this point. Enlisting the help of a vivacious transsexual named Rayon (Jared Leto), Woodruff’s rusty exterior slowly starts to peel away, revealing a softer man who is far more altruistic than his environment might otherwise suggest.
Speaking of Leto, it’s good to see that his band 30 Seconds to Mars allowed him to take some much-needed time off, so he could starve himself down to 114 pounds for this role. His performance in Dallas Buyers Club might actually top a career-defining one from his co-star. At the very least, what Leto had to do to get into character here was a bit more complicated. On one level, he’s playing a man who seems to have a bit of an identity crisis, and on another, he’s a man stricken with this horrible disease that is wasting his body away. Some of the more powerful imagery in this film stem from scenes in which Leto’s present. Coupled with an infectious attitude that his Rayon has, Leto might well be more memorable than McConaughey here, though that’s not to say one truly outweighs the other. Combined, the two put on a most transformative show and are fully convincing, in every sense of the word. They keep this rather sad affair afloat.
Jennifer Garner is also quite spectacular, playing the conflicted Dr. Eve Saks, who is one of the first to tell Woodroof he has a mere 30 days left to live. The doc’s role is a particularly tricky one, what with having to tow the line between policies and procedures set forth by her institution, as well as showing that she truly cares about her patients with a terminal illness. Deftly balancing her character’s professionalism with some strong emotional moments, Garner, while never being an actress I’ve kept an eye on, suits the scene just fine here and in many cases she bears too much of the burden herself. In some ways she is as tragic as the people who are physically suffering.
The sum total of Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t end up arriving at the most profound conclusions that the dedication of its lead actors here more often than not suggests. The story arc, unpredictable as it is, is sort of a one-way street, which in some ways makes the concept feel limited. But it’s within the performances where this movie really lies. Its cast is dedicated to providing physically accurate renderings of this brutal illness, which is enough of a basis to recommend this film on alone. Getting into the personalities behind the Dallas Buyers Club, however. . .well that’s another story entirely.
Recommendation: This is a performance-driven piece, so if you are into that sort of thing, Dallas Buyers Club should have you covered. More specifically. . . McConaughey seems to have hit his stride as a dramatic actor. Between this and his fugitive from this spring, he has this year alone turned in some of the more compelling anti-heros that I personally can recall in years. But I would like to again emphasize this isn’t just the McSkinny-hey show. Leto gives it his all here as well, humanizing a kind of person many typically turn a blind eye to. After a four-year hiatus, it is good to see him also returning in fine form. . .even if his physique here betrays the concept of ‘fine form.’
Running Time: 117 mins.
Quoted: “Welcome to the Dallas Buyers Club.”
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