Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club Movie Review

People make a big deal out of actors packing on or shedding the pounds for the sake of a role. Think about De Niro in Raging Bull, Christian Bale in The Machinist, or Tom Hanks in Cast Away and images immediately come to mind of an altered body paired with a great performance. It’s easy to conflate physical transformation and great acting or to think that the one causes the other. I suppose it helps the actor get into the mind of the character in some cases, but regardless, the actor still has to do the work in his head even after the physical aspect has taken root.

Matthew McConaughey can now join that esteemed list for playing Ron Woodroof, a Texas rodeo hound, local swindler, oil rig electrician, and severe homophobe who learns he’s suffering from HIV very near what should be the end of his life. Dallas Buyers Club is based on the real life events of a man who found ways of bringing non-FDA approved drugs and supplements into the country and distributing them through a buyers club – a club requiring membership that entitles you to free medication that seems to be helping lots of people afflicted with the disease.

The film spans a time period from the early to the late 80s. The cultural landscape is presented through the news that Rock Hudson has just died of AIDS and Ron and his buddies are shocked that the famous actor was gay. This was a time when few people had enlightened views on AIDS and to most people it was a gay disease. So for Ron to be told he’s HIV positive is a shock not because he’s terminally ill, but because he “knows” there’s no way he could have a disease restricted to the gay community. When he has a revelation about a past sexual encounter with an intravenous drug user, he panics. Later, his ignorant friends and neighbors ostracize him, not because he’s sick, but because they think he’s a homosexual.

At that time no one had any effective way of treating or managing the disease. AZT was just coming into clinical trials but Ron can’t get involved at the drop of a hat, and anyway, he’s been given a month to live. First he steals the drugs and then he visits an American doctor (Griffin Dunne) in Mexico. He’s created a little new world order south of the border and provides vitamins and proteins to help healthy cells stay strong. Then he gets the idea of selling it Stateside to make a fortune. What begins as a means of self preservation becomes a livelihood, and a lucrative one at that.

He takes on a business partner – a pre-op transgender named Rayon (Jared Leto), whom he meets in the hospital. Rayon can supply the client base while Ron works to get his hands on the latest medications from around the world, hopping to Japan and Israel and back. Ron’s relationship to Rayon begins as strictly business. He won’t even shake Rayon’s hand at the start. And when he threatens Rayon and chastises him for using drugs, it’s not from a position of compassion and friendship, but as a means of protecting the business and the image.

Craig Barton and Melissa Wallack’s screenplay could use some fine tuning to either eliminate extraneous characters or flesh them out a little more. Steve Zahn, a fairly recognizable face, appears as a local cop who is friend to Ron. This friendship is written as pure convenience and he fortuitously shows up when Ron is most in need of a friendly hand as when he needs to be arrested to avoid a beating by some cowboys who want their money. The senior doctor who gives him his initial diagnosis, played by Denis O’Hare, is one of these thinly written bureaucratic types who jumps head first into a study to reap the financial reward for the hospital and then refuses to listen to the ethical and moral center of the film, Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who becomes an impossible love interest for Ron and something of an abettor to his operation. They spent too much time making Ron more interesting and not enough making the rest believable. But then even Ron’s transition from a guy who won’t take less than 400 dollars for a membership because he’s “not running a charity” to someone who will sell his car to help his program near the end after he has come to understand the human toll of the disease. It’s a little played out to see this kind of development.

It’s McConaughey’s performance that drives and carries the movie. In what is probably the best work of his career (and that includes an incredible string of recent roles that have propelled him from rom-com staple to serious cinema actor), he tears into Ron’s wiry frame and digs deep into the grit. His Ron is both confident and scared; he’s intelligent, but supremely foolish. He goes from the guy who takes bets on the rodeo bull riders to being the guy taking the ride himself.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée gives us not the Texas of ranchers and strutting cowboys, but the one that shows the working class lifestyle with trailer living, seedy bars, and cheap motels. There are no open landscapes and gorgeous sunsets here. Vallée makes it a much better movie than the screenplay suggests. If nothing else it is worth a look for McConaughey’s portrayal of an unlikely hero of the AIDS crisis in a time when lots of people in the country were in desperate need of more people like him.

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