Principal Cast : Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts, Michael O’Neil, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin, Bradford Cox, Scott Takeda, Adam Dunn.
Synopsis: After discovering he is HIV+, Ron Woodruff travels to Mexico to try and buy life-saving drugs, before returning to the US to sell them to folks who can’t wait for treatment in hospital.
Sorry lady, I prefer to die with my boots on.
Anyone ever see that old HBO telemovie with Angeline Jolie, Gia? It was a fairly graphic representation of the onset of AIDS during the rise of the disease to prominence in Western society, told through the story of fashion icon supermodel Gia Marie Carangi, and how the 80’s medical fraternity really had no knowledge of what they were truly dealing with. Dallas Buyers Club taps into the same vein, telling the story of Ron Woodruff, an American rodeo cowboy and electrician who spent the latter part of his life infected with HIV and smuggling drugs into Texas to combat the effects. Matthew McConaughey, who drastically dropped a whole heap of weight to portray Woodruff (the film is based on real people and events), is terrific in the role, confused and angry at the world for giving him “the gay disease”, contemplating not only survival but suicide as he confronts his own mortality. This is McConaughey’s Philadelphia, and although Tom Hank’s enormous shadow hangs over just about every modern depiction of HIV-related illness since, I think Matthew differentiates himself as a victom simply through sheer will. Sure enough, McConaughey’s excellent, but what of the film itself? A film cannot hang itself around the neck of a single performance, no matter how strong that performance may be, leaving the question of whether Dallas Buyers Club warrants the plaudits it has reaped since release – is it a great film, an average film, or merely a prop for one of the great leading performances of 2013?
Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a rodeo cowboy and electrician, who, after being hospitalized after a workplace injury, is informed that he not only is HIV+, but has only 30 days to live. Initially skeptical, since Woodruff believes AIDS is a disease of homosexuality (and he prides himself on being heterosexual to the point of violence), when his condition deteriorates he decides to investigate potential medical assistance. He approaches staff at the local hospital, where Doctor Saks (Jennifer Garner) informs him that AZT, the drug of choice for AIDS relief, is not available to purchase legally within the United States. Journeying to Mexico, Ron undergoes treatment in the care of Doctor Vass (Griffin Dunne), where he realizes that there is money to be made transporting the drugs on offer back into the US to assist those who can’t afford it. Together with transgender AIDS patient Rayon (Jared Leto), they set up the “Dallas Buyers Club” out of a motel room, highly illegal and yet completely profitable, making money out of the suffering of others.
Dallas Buyers Club’s Best Picture nomination is easy to spot a mile off – it’s exactly the kind of film the Academy would look at as ripe for back-slapping, with its downtrodden characters, socially white-hot hot-button topical story, and performance-driven aesthetic (not to mention the 25 day shoot and the minimal $5 million budget, which goes a long way to explaining its “rough around the edges” style), so it makes sense that an Oscar nomination might come its way. Matthew McConaughey is rightly nominated for an acting gong, as is Jared Leto, doing the big screen’s best man-as-a-woman role since Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, and together they weave some kind of buddy-comedy magic that lifts the films rather melancholy nature. As uplifting as Dallas Buyers Club tries to be, it cannot help but feel foregone, a tragedy unfolding in slow motion that winds its way to is natural, sickly conclusion without hope of salvation. As a personal story of triumph in the face of adversity, Dallas Buyers Club feels a little underwhelming, though not as far as McConaughey is concerned. McConaughey is terrific as Woodruff, the gruff, manly, frightened cowboy trying desperately to save himself, but also those who also find themselves afflicted with the disease.
Performances aside, Dallas Buyers Club runs afoul of trying to figure out exactly what story it wants to tell. On the one hand, Ron’s battle with the FDA and the establishment, who he sees as coming after him when he sets up his “buyers clubs”, is a story in and of itself, and the film ping-pongs between Ron’s personal battle and his battle to save others, which never feels cohesive as a narrative, since as the film opens he’s something of a selfish douche. Leto’s involvement, while entertaining, doesn’t go anywhere productive other than to provide a tragic pivot paralleling Ron’s personal life; the story’s schizophrenic focus is ultimately what brings everything undone. Written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, the screenplay wavers in a killer blow, going for a relatively low-key approach that doesn’t quite have the gravitas it strives for. You get the sense that in trying to accomplish so much, the film loses its way and becomes a bit…. well, messy.
That’s not to say Dallas Buyers Club is a bad film, because it truly isn’t. There’s something special at work here, a sense of righteous hinted-at anger about the US health system and the way it stifles anything it cannot make a profit from (because that’s the American way, y’all!) and this kind of thing is designed as a blood-pressure raiser. At least for me it is, anyway. But the barely veiled snipe at the US health system becomes a stumbling block for Woodruff’s arc as a man, a man trying to buck the system but being stymied at every turn. The movie doesn’t offer enough development to Ron’s passion for doing what he does other than a mild need to make money for himself (in my opinion), which feels a little shallow and manipulative. Jennifer Garner’s altruistic doctor feels more passion in her left little toe than Woodruff appears to, for the cause she’s working on, even though she’s constantly hounded down for daring to question the motives of Big Pharma.
Although the inevitability of Woodruff’s outcome is saddening, and the waves of melancholy despair wash over the film throughout its running time (especially during the opening half), Dallas Buyers Club remains limited in elegiac motivation thanks to McConaughey’s strident performance. Inhabiting the AIDS ravaged body of Woodruff, it’s as accomplished, as daring, and as brave a performance as I’ve yet seen from the man. There’s a truthfulness to his personification of Woodruff that reaches through the screen – McConaughey’s lack of inhibition here is a far cry from his shirtless strutting in crud like How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days, Sahara, Failure To Launch and EDtv. Recent career U-turns have provided valuable fruit for him as an actor, considering The Lincoln Lawyer, Mud and even Magic Mike have provided us with a more subtle, more dramatic McConaughey, a man unafraid to take chances with the roles he chooses. Dallas Buyers Club represents the culmination of the last decade of seeming to avoid mainstream blockbuster material, and it pays off handsomely. The character he plays is raw, determined and utterly demanding, and were he to snag an Oscar for it, I’d say it’s richly deserved.
Dallas Buyers Club remains a film I felt too ambivalent about to really sell it in this review. While I could see the motivation for making it, and the ideas behind the story are as profound now as they were back during the 80’s, there’s simply a lack of definite focus to the story it’s trying to tell – or exactly which story it’s trying to tell. Characters seem to lack direction and waver in their motivations, and Woodruff’s arc never quite gels like it should, at least in terms of where his character is going, but the overall tone of the film is solid. Were it not for McConaughey’s magnetic performance, or even the accompanying supporting work by Jared Leto (who deserves all the accolades he’s received for his work here), I doubt Dallas Buyers Club would be the film it is, and I think it would simply remain a movie-of-the-week, preachy, overly dramatic dirge. If I was to categorize the film with a single word, it would be “workmanlike”. There’s plenty to like here, but I think a lot of folks may find the going tough. Not for the content, but for the ambivalent nature of the script.