DALLAS BUYERS CLUB Review: Dire Straight
As a member of the Classic Film Community, I often wonder what springs to people’s minds when a celebrity’s name is mentioned. For example, mention Marilyn Monroe, and you are likely to get responses ranging from “bombshell” to Some Like It Hot to President John F. Kennedy. Mention Charlton Heston, you’ll go from Moses to Planet of the Apes to the NRA. Mention Rock Hudson and chances are you’ll get Doris Day … or HIV and AIDS.
In 1985, Rock Hudson, the handsome leading man of 1950s-1960s Hollywood, who made hearts swoon and panties drop, became the first celebrity face of HIV and AIDS. The actor lived for 16 months between diagnosis and his passing, and only three months passed between his public announcement and his death. The protagonist in Dallas Buyers Club, which is set in 1985, has even less time than that.
Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a professional electrician, an amateur rodeo cowboy, and full-time hustler from Texas who, for all of the things he does, instead does nothing when he shows signs of some illness. When he is injured on the job and taken to the hospital, routine blood tests show that he has contracted AIDS. His doctors give him 30 days to live.
After spending a week in denial, Woodroof begins research on AIDS treatments and finds that prospects are dim while the FDA performs lengthy tests. Motivated by survival, Woodroof looks to Mexico for drug alternatives. There, Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), whose license was stripped in the US, exposes to Woodroof the harms of the experimental drug AZT, and introduces the victim to alternatives. Now surviving and motivated by money, Woodroof makes the doctor a lucrative offer and returns stateside where he attempts to sell the alternative meds to the gay community that is being ravaged by the disease.
Meeting limited success, Woodroof strikes a partnership with Rayon (Jared Leto), a gay/transvestite AIDS victim who can give him inroads to, and bona fides with, the gay community. The plan works, but selling drugs is a dicey legal proposition. To skirt the law, Woodroof launches the Dallas Buyers Club, where no one actually buys drugs but instead joins the club for a monthly fee and receives drugs as part of the membership. The FDA is unhappy with Woodroof’s enterprise, but his doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), while questioning his methods, has bigger questions about the FDA itself and the safety and viability of AZT.
Dallas Buyers Club is a study in character and a tale of social injustice, with the finished product riding heavily on the performances of McConaughey and Leto, lest the film devolve into a big screen movie-of-the-week. A combination of errors by the filmmakers would have guaranteed this fate had it not been for those two performances (more on those later).
The design of Woodroof the character, by director Jean-Marc Vallee and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, is so heavy-handed and overt that it reaches the point of becoming an insult to the viewer. The film opens with Woodroof in a dark recess of an arena where bull-riding is taking place in his field of vision. His attention, though, is on the standing two-girl three-way that he is vigorously taking part in. Once he’s finished – and you know he’s finished – he’s behind the scenes at the rodeo, smoking and drinking and illegally gambling, all the while discussing the fate of celebrity AIDS victim Rock Hudson and using every homophobic epithet he can think of in the process. He is 110% Texas Man, right down to his oversized belt buckle.
It’s all too much. It establishes Woodroof as the prototypical ’80s straight male the way turning the volume up to 10 establishes that your stereo system works – both are technically accurate, but both blow out your senses in the process.
A great example of how this hurts the film is the scene that sends Woodroof to the hospital. He is summoned to help an injured coworker, and that coworker happens to be an illegal immigrant. The site boss is reluctant to call an ambulance because of the possible legal repercussions, but Woodroof insists. This is key in understanding the complexity of the Woodroof character – he’s not just a knuckle-dragger, he cares for people too – yet the exchange is almost blink-and-you-miss-it. The filmmakers instead spend more time on things like two-girl three-ways and nudie pictures on walls to remind you, “Hey. This is a STRAIGHT GUY we’re dealing with.”
The social injustice aspect of the film is two-fold and is a mixed bag. The poorly handled fold involves The System in general, as illustrated by FDA representative Richard Barkley and hospital representative Dr. Sevard (the excellent pair of character actors Michael O’Neill and Denis O’Hare, respectively). The System is underdeveloped, portrayed as sort-of inept and sort-of greedy, but neither convincingly enough. This makes The System nothing more than Donkey Kong, a two-dimensional nemesis throwing barrels in the path of Woodroff’s Mario for the sake of fulfilling the conflict requirement of the story. I’m not defending The System, but the repetitive “Stop what you’re doing this time, Mr. Woodroof, because we’re right and you’re not,” grows old quickly.
Also, the Garner character is completely unnecessary. She is supposed to be this bridge between Woodroof’s world and The System, slowly moving away from the latter and towards the former, but all of her scenes feel forced. It’s as if someone said, “Hey, we can’t vilify The System with so broad a brush, so let’s throw in a good guy in the bad System. And make it a female character because we need one of those.” They chose Garner, who is completely unconvincing regardless of her proximity to either side of the struggle.
The other social injustice fold is at the human level, and how Woodroof’s friends treat him once word gets out he has AIDS. It’s shocking and saddening and for as hard as it hits you in the face, it was probably 10x worse in real life. Not only do they slander him with verbal jabs and awful graffiti on his home, they treat him like a pariah in ways that defy sense. His so-called friends, those with whom he had shared work and booze and women only weeks prior, literally avoid him like the plague, ensuring that he is always feet away from them physically, as if sharing close enough airspace with him was a death sentence. This is odd to say, but as storytelling goes, this horror is a bright spot.
With overall weak storytelling, thank goodness for the performances. Matthew McConaughey turns in the best work of his career to date, surpassing another great performance in this year’s Mud. Despite the filmmakers’ clumsiness, the actor understands the depth of his character, particularly how Woodroof must somehow embrace those whom he once disdained because, at least in the eye of the public, he has become one of them. He uses that compassion that flashed earlier in the film, parlays it with the moneymaker in him, and presents Woodroof as the Hustler with the Heart of Gold, but one without a tidy happy ending in his future.
But Jared Leto does the unthinkable and steals scenes from the mighty McConaughey. Not only is Leto physically transformed into a meticulously primped and pretty, but eventually physically deteriorated, gay transvestite, he never overplays the character. Not once does he turn in even a hint of camp, and there is always the sense that for all of the good he is doing to help his brothers in AIDS, he is suffering inside – physically and emotionally. There are two specific scenes that spring to mind: a tender moment with Garner (despite Garner) and a scene near the end of the film, where he asks his estranged father for help. The former is touching, the latter is simply devastating, and the two are worth the price of admission.
Dallas Buyers Club is one of those films that is “inspired by true events,” a tag that allows filmmakers the greatest possible storytelling latitude. They can pick and choose the most interesting parts of the story that actually happened, while at the same time embellish, or even invent, other aspects to make the story a better one told. The bad news is that the filmmakers fumbled their end of the deal. The good news is McConaughey and Leto more than make up for those errors, leaving on the screen a pair of performances that will stay with you for a very long time.