Dallas Buyers Club film review: Searching for sustenance

Magnificent performances pervade excellent new film

By ERIC CORTELLESSA
On November 24, 2013

Film: Dallas Buyers Club

Studio: Focus Features

Buffalo Release Date: Nov. 22

Grade: A

In the 1980s when AIDS was first discovered, it was associated predominantly with homosexual men. Beyond the infected being stigmatized for the condition in and of itself, the association was used as fodder for the ignorant and the hateful as ammunition to prove that homosexuality was wrong - the disease was often derisively referred to as "The Gay Plague."

When Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey, The Paper Boy) is told he has contracted the HIV virus in the new film Dallas Buyers Club, he is initially more offended by the implication he may be gay than he is concerned about his health.

But by the time he learns he's been infected, we have already learned that his wellbeing is not his top priority - he sleeps with prostitutes; he compulsively drinks whiskey, smokes cigarettes and snorts cocaine; he's an inveterate gambler who makes bets he can't pay off when he loses. He lives in a trailer park and has little concern for his personal hygiene. He has a flippant sense of humor and he's quick to fight when provoked. He's a charismatic redneck. And he's intensely homophobic.

McConaughey transformed his body for the role - he's not the chiseled, handsome Adonis we know him as; he's scrawny and unsightly - practically emaciated and more distant than he's ever been from the kind of sex appeal that made his career.

Jean-Marc Vallée (Café de Flore) doesn't let this become a point of overemphasis. It's easy for directors when they have a star who is being cast against type to loiter on his or her performance - to hang the camera on the actor so extensively that it is practically screaming at the Oscar committee to take notice.

But Vallée really lets the camera breathe and has it move rhythmically with the actors - giving the story the vital feeling it deserves. And the editing makes way for emotional cues - the abrupt shifts and swift pacing provide a sense of an unbalanced development appropriate for Woodroof, a character coming to terms with illness while stumbling toward redemption.

Screenwriters Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack are deliberate in beginning the film with Woodroof scoffing Rock Hudson - the first major celebrity to die of AIDS. Hudson was a man whose Hollywood persona was quite different from his personal life; during his time, many were surprised to learn he was gay.

Beginning with Hudson, Vallée immediately suggests that people often transcend social categories - that the disease can hit anyone. Hudson's death also inspired millions to donate money to medical research for AIDS. He died in 1985, the same year this movie begins.

When Woodroof is told by his doctors, Dr. Sevard (Denis O'Hare, The Good Wife) and Eve (Jennifer Garner, The Odd Life of Timothy Green), he has the disease, and that he has been weakening his already susceptible immune system due to excessive drinking and drug use, he is given 30 days to live.

At first, he doesn't take the gravity of his health condition at all seriously; he goes back to his normal habits - he parties and engages in more sexual conduct with prostitutes. It isn't until he starts to notice his body weakening that he takes the initiative to research the disease.

He reads that 71 percent of infected persons are homosexual and bisexual men. Then he reads that anyone can contract the disease, and that the more unprotected sex you have, the more likely you are to get infected - he begins to process that this has really happened to him.

When he wants treatment, the only medication available to him through the hospital that is FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved is AZT. And at first, it is not totally available; they are undergoing a trial period of giving half the patients the drug and the other half a placebo in order to test AZT's efficacy.

Unable to accept this option as a dying man, Woodroof cuts a deal with a nurse's assistant to provide him the drug. Eventually, this arrangement proves unsustainable and he goes out in search of whatever alternative he can find.

He learns of an American doctor running a shop in Mexico after his license was revoked in the United States, and after Woodroof is treated by him for three months and learns more about the disease, he discovers a way he can profit from it - he can smuggle these anti-viral medications and vitamins into Texas and sell them to people who are HIV positive.

When he returns, he runs into Rayon (Jared Leto, Mr. Nobody), an HIV-positive transvestite he met in the hospital. Rayon has a group of friends who want the medications Woodroof has, but Woodroof sees less gain in just selling it to them as opposed to setting up a sustainable business model - he wants to set up his own private shop: the Dallas Buyers Club.

At this time, Buyers Clubs have been forming all around the country for AIDS patients who want alternative treatments; the complications of such an enterprise, however, are working around the FDA.

Woodroof and Rayon have situated their business in a motel and have set it up by membership - people buy their memberships, not the drugs. Once you become a member, then you have access to the medications they provide. As they grow and attract more and more customers, this becomes a problem for the FDA and pharmaceutical companies, as they have now become competition. Now, the FDA sets out to destroy what Woodroof and Rayon have created.

Throughout the film, there are some inevitable developments that the filmmakers handle well. It's perfectly obvious that Woodroof will become tolerant of gays and realize that those suffering from the disease are human beings worthy of being treated and seen as such. But this film goes beyond what some may expect and becomes a stunning and poignant film about never giving up on the importance of one's life. 

It is ironic how before Woodroof contracts the disease, his life is flat-out miserable (and incredibly lonely) - it is not until he becomes sick that he finds a sense of purpose. At first, his only purpose is to survive. And then, it becomes both deeper and more complicated than that.

It may be convention at this point to have a character begin a venture with commercial incentive only to discover there is something more important beneath the surface, but this film handles it better than any recent film I have seen. The Dallas Buyers Club provides Woodroof a community and a way to connect with other people.

His methods may be compromised - he lies, steals, cheats, manipulates - but the purpose (and consequences) driving his actions eventually becomes noble. The FDA's stringent regulations on the medications AIDS patients could try were undeniably unjust - what do terminally ill people have to lose? 

With all the sense of virtue embedded into the story, never do the filmmakers allow lame dialogue or oversentimentality to erode the screen. Some of the most touching scenes are the most restrained, like a moment when Rayon visits his estranged father to ask for money and dresses like a man to do so. It is quick and the camera doesn't linger. Vallée quickly transitions to the next moment after Rayon gently asks his father, "How's mom?"

For the most part, we are past the point in which a film about AIDS should expect indignant response from the mainstream sectors of society. And as a piece of narrative, Dallas Buyers Club is nothing new and it lies almost on the brink of being formulaic. How many films are there about how it often takes someone facing death to learn about life? But a film's quality relies less on what it's about than how it is about it.

Seeing this film is like experiencing what's been done hundreds of times and seeing it in a new way. McConaughey and Leto give the best performances of their careers. Garner at first seems too earnest in her role and then embodies it with absolute precision. And Vallée is so proficient in the techniques of establishing momentum that the film provides a sense of satisfaction moviegoers seldom get to experience anymore.

By the time you leave, you know the central ingredient that Woodroof's story entails - the quest for meaning. Rarely does a film's quest and that of its protagonist coexist in such union.

Dallas Buyers Club is one of the best movies of the year.

 

email: arts@ubspectrum.com


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