Review: Dallas Buyers Club

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Ron Woodroof was the kind of guy that many people wouldn’t want to know. When we first see him, he’s at the rodeo, having sex with two women. Shortly thereafter, he’s running from men whom he has welshed on a bet. His friend, a cop (Steve Zahn), saves him, but slugs him in the mouth for good measure.

Ron, as played with incandescence by Matthew McConaughey, is a womanizer, a heavy drinker, and a cocaine user. He hangs out in a bar that has a large Confederate flag tacked to the wall. Not only is he not a “faggot,” as he proclaims, he doesn’t know any.

So when he is diagnosed with HIV, he at first dismisses the notion. But then he remembers a regrettable sexual encounter, and realizes he’s in deep shit. There’s nothing like a death sentence to focus one’s attention. Unable to get the drugs he needs in the U.S., he heads to Mexico, and with the help of an American doctor, learns that AZT, the one drug that is in the process of being approved, is actually making him sicker. He brings better drugs across the border, but to get around the law against selling them, he gives them away for free, but only to those who buy a membership. This is Dallas Buyers Club.

There have been movies about the AIDS crisis, mostly in documentary fashion, such as How to Survive a Plague. I would imagine we haven’t seen Hollywood tackle the subject, because of a reluctance to use gay characters as protagonists–even in Philadelphia (twenty years ago now), Denzel Washington is the character the audience is meant to identify with. Because Woodroof was straight, the movie can be made. That being said, this is not a bad thing. I’m reminded that most of the major sex discrimination laws that Ruth Ginsberg fought against as an attorney focused on laws discriminating against men–sometimes it takes people see things from the other side to make them see the light.

Though this film is about AIDS and the medical establishment dragging their feet on treatment, the spine of the film is how Woodroof, ironically, became a better person because of his illness. A reprehensible redneck transforms into a person who not only knows gays, he grows to like them and value their friendship. And while this may sound like movie-of-the-week schmaltz, it most certainly is not. This film is tough and unsentimental, which makes the change all the more impactful.

Dallas Buyers Club was directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. The only film I’ve seen before by him was The Young Victoria, and nothing about that film prepared me for how good this is. With a smart script by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, and excellent editing by Vallee and Martin Penza, this film pulses with energy from the first frame to the last, a frozen image back at the rodeo.

But it’s the acting that I’ll remember. McConaughey, rail-thin and looking like a gnawed bone, is scary good. He’s convincing as a reprobate, and he’s convincing as a man who decides to take on the FDA. He has many memorable scenes, such as the one where he comes home to find his trailer with homophobic graffiti on it and his door padlocked. He gets a shotgun out of his trunk, blows a hole in the door, and shouts to anyone listening, “I live here!”

And there’s a comedian’s gifts to the performance as well. Consider the scene where he first takes AZT, which he gets from an orderly on the sly. He goes home, pops two pills just to make sure, and then has a belt of booze and snorts a line of coke.

If McConaughey is good, I can almost say that Jared Leto is better. He is Rayon, who shares a hospital room with Woodroof. He is a transvestite who is undergoing an AZT trial. Leto invests so much dignity and humor in the role that it’s almost too heartbreaking to watch him, and his scene with his banker father, who has disowned him, is mesmerizing. Leto also makes a very good looking woman.

Also in the cast is Jennifer Garner, as a doctor who ultimately takes McConaughey’s side. She’s good, too, though a bit too idealized, I think. Denis O’Hare is the bad guy doctor, but I couldn’t watch him without thinking of Russell Edgington from True Blood.

Dallas Buyers Club made me laugh, made me tear up, and made me angry. It’s one of the best films of the year.

My grade for Dallas Buyers Club: A.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

5 responses »

  1. I would imagine we haven’t seen Hollywood tackle the subject, because of a reluctance to use gay characters as protagonists–even in Philadelphia (twenty years ago now), Denzel Washington is the character the audience is meant to identify with. Because Woodroof was straight, the movie can be made. That being said, this is not a bad thing. I’m reminded that most of the major sex discrimination laws that Ruth Ginsberg fought against as an attorney focused on laws discriminating against men–sometimes it takes people see things from the other side to make them see the light.

    This might have been a reasonable rationale in 1992, but I think it’s fair to wonder if it’s not hopelessly outdated now. Gays are getting married as we speak in Utah, for crying out loud, and attitudes about AIDS are much much different as well – we’ve seen a whole generation come of age without the stigma attached to the disease that the movie portrays.

    I mean, let’s be honest, the real story in this movie is how the government dragged its feet on AIDS out of reactionary homophobia, meaning that effective treatments were hard to come by and lots and lots of people died. That’s why Woodruff found himself in the circumstances he found himself in, and why he had to do what he did. Making the movie about how he learned to tolerate gay people seems almost willfully beside the point. It’s relentlessly sentimental, existing only to reassure the audience via proxy about their own (revisionist in many cases) attitudes towards homosexuals. An ugly and fatuous bit of business, I feel.

    Put another way, I’m hesistant to be so nonchalant about the attitudes you describe about making films like this.

    Plus, the movie is a rather MOR affair anyway. McConaughey isn’t terrible but the role calls for a bunch of dumb showy scenes that I feel he plays overly broadly, like that stupid bit of business with him impersonating a priest. It’s certainly not a very nuanced performance – he plays up the Texas hick and then he plays up the reformed Texas hick just as hard. Actually, I take it back, he really is kind of terrible.

    And other things. None of the supporting characters are really filled out. The FDA agent is pathetically drawn, Garner’s character feels like an old-time studio head yelled “WE NEED A GIRL!!!”, and Leto’s character functions too much as demeaning comic relief.

    In short, this is empty Oscar bait.

  2. This is a pretty goddamn good movie. I could agree with your points more, Slim, and I had almost the same reaction.
    Matt is superb, in one of his best performances to date. Leto is insanely good looking as a woman and the filmmaking and writing here is top-notch. The movie never loses its focus or pacing and it’s never anything less than people we want to see work through the situations they’ve found themselves in.
    Could they have explained better why he hated ‘faggots’? Sure. Did they need to? No. And it didn’t have to take place in ‘hick country’, it could have been anyplace. If people believe there is a blanket acceptance of gays now, well, I respectfully say you’re not paying enough attention, or watching tv news too much and not getting out and seeing the world. No disrespect meant.
    The scene in the bar where they don’t want to be near him is painful to watch, but no one knew what the disease was or what would happen with the disease. I think the idea here is that these attitudes and beliefs have NOT changed, and this movie is every bit as prescient today as it was in the ’90’s. To just say ‘Let’s move on’ is disingenuous and slightly ignorant. Again, no disrespect.
    Again, this is great filmmaking, even if Garner’s character is fairly thinly-drawn and not up to the level of the other characters. Like Leto.
    To call this movie ‘ludicrously overpraised’ I couldn’t disagree with less, and though this may not be as ‘artistic’, it says so much more about people and how they love and act and what they do when faced with situations they had no hand in than Upstream Color could ever hope to do.

  3. Sorry, too many ‘agains’. This is easily in my top 5 of the year. And while an amazing job, I’m certain this was not a better acting job than Bale. At all. I will likely attempt to see 12 Years a Slave to see just how excellent Ejiofor is in the movie, and if any performance can overtake Bale’s.

  4. If people believe there is a blanket acceptance of gays now, well, I respectfully say you’re not paying enough attention, or watching tv news too much and not getting out and seeing the world. No disrespect meant.
    The scene in the bar where they don’t want to be near him is painful to watch, but no one knew what the disease was or what would happen with the disease. I think the idea here is that these attitudes and beliefs have NOT changed, and this movie is every bit as prescient today as it was in the ’90′s. To just say ‘Let’s move on’ is disingenuous and slightly ignorant. Again, no disrespect.

    I’m not sure who you’re addressing here, since neither Jackrabbit Slim nor I said either of those things.

  5. Watched this tonight and it reminded me a bit of ‘Milk’, in how it was a tragic true biopic story with strong gay-related themes in it (although they were even moreso in ‘Milk).

    And my rating of the film is similar to ‘Milk’, consistently good with excellent performances but never reaches greatness as a whole or in individual scenes.

    I thought it was very well-directed by Vallee – he gives the film a vitality and rhythm (and also excellent cutting and editing) that keeps the film an unpredictable feel throughout. This could’ve so easily be a humdrum biopic if done conventionally.

    Certainly no complaints about McConaughey getting the Oscar after that performance – he was great throughout, especially in how the transformation of his character was subtle and gradual over the course of the film (and therefore convincing). Leto was also great and deserving of his award – indeed I wish he’d been in the film more.

    I agree with the criticisms around Garner’s character and performance – she was OK but paled compared with other performances and her character seemed to have rather too much screen time that could’ve been given to more interesting characters.

    For mine, what I think stopped this film from greatness was that it didn’t really delve into the many interesting issues the film brought up around the AIDS crisis. On issues like the motivations of O’Hare’s character, why the FDA acted the way it did, how Woodruff managed to get his scheme running so successfully, etc… – the film probed to a certain extent into these issues, but not really enough.

    Still, a fine film. I’d give it a B

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