Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Dallas Buyers Club


Jean-Marc Vallée
Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
117 min.
Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts, Kevin Rankin
MPAA Rating
R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use

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It may seem like the AIDS epidemic has waned in recent years thanks to drug cocktails and better health care choices, so why is a film like Dallas Buyers Club, a semi-biographical story of an AIDS patient struggling to survive, so important? Precisely because the epidemic hasn’t declined, just the pervasive fear has.

Set in the 1980’s, when AIDS was a prevalent, but seldom talked-about health nightmare, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a rodeo cowboy who struggles to accept his diagnosis and tries to find a way to live longer than the short timeframe he’s given by seeking out experimental drugs to help him in spite of the FDA’s refusal to test and release such medicines within the United States. Pitted against a corrupt, fearful government, Woodroof begins a campaign to create the Dallas Buyers Club, a subscription-based group that provides monthly supplies to AIDS patients while profiting in the process.

Helping Woodroof find willing participants and forming a deep friendship all the while is a transgender named Rayon (Jared Leto). At first put off by Woodroof’s queer-bating methods, the two become fast friends in spite of the various struggles they face trying to ease the suffering of their fellow Dallas citizens. Adding her occasional support is Jennifer Garner as a young doctor who slowly becomes disgruntled with her hospital for favoring lucrative pharmaceutical contracts for ill-effective drugs instead of trying to help as many patients as possible.

Everything about Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest film feels like it’s trapped in the 1980’s. The film is set during that period, so the look and feel being of that period isn’t particularly agregious, but it almost feels like it was made then as well, meaning it doesn’t age that well. This is the kind of film HBO was tackling in the early 1990’s with dramas like And the Band Played On. Tackling this topic so long after it was a prevalent part of mainstream consciouness may have something to do with the length of time it took the film to find financial backing and simultaneously acts as a warning of what could happen if we fail to recognize the failures of the past.

The screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack alters a great deal of Woodroof’s story. Woodroof himself was a gay man, not a self-loathing straight man; Rayon was a fictional construct and Garner’s character was also an openly bisexual man. Why these characters had to change is beyond my understanding, but many stories play loosely with the facts of affairs in order to sell it to an audience that would be otherwise unreceptive. I applaud the desire to push this to a broader audience, but it’s aggravating to see valuable stories manipulated to reduce their impact to the communities that still struggle with the fight against AIDS.

Excepting the alterations to the base story, there is an important lesson her, exposing a hypocrisy within the pharmaceutical industry that remains as fervent as it was back in the 1980’s. Profit is more important to these groups than saving lives and their ability to manipulate and control the FDA in terms of approving their drugs while denying lower-cost alternatives from easily reaching the public is a significant issue still today.

McConaughey’s performance superbly sloughs off the tough-guy, ladies-man veneer that characterized much of his earlier. Woodroof goes from patently abusive to genuinely emotional as the film plays on. It’s an ever-present trope in this type of movie, but it gives a different audience the ability to reflect on their attitudes against homosexuals, much like Woodroof’s, and step beyond that to recognize those suffering as people as well. This is aided immeasurably by Leto who dominates his scenes showcasing a talent that has been absent since his excellent performance in Requiem for a Dream in 2000.

Garner’s support is negligible as her character has little rational import to the story. Meanwhile, openly gay Denis O’Hare plays an unconcerned hospital administrator and handily makes the audience loathe him. It plays against type, but I’m certain Vallée intended it as such.

Vallée is no stranger to gay themes in his films, his brilliant Canadian film C.R.A.Z.Y. showcased a gem of a talent exploring family life in a small town where sexual identiy played a major role. That film never released in theaters in the United States, but remains one of the absolute best films of 2005. This is his second exploration of a topic that involves homosexuality and while it’s not the sublime achievemnet of his 2005 effort, it still showcases a firm grasp of dramatic tension, interpesonal relationships and the human desire to be accepted without condition, which subtly takes a back seat to the more pressing storyline.

Dallas Buyers Club should afford Vallée more access to mainstream efforts, though it suggests the director may not be able to make that transition without losing some of his creativity in the process. The film is compelling while feeling a tad dated, but the nobility of the message and the potential to reach beyond the traditional queer-themed audience is justification for its success. It may be targeted at straight men and women to bring their attention to the situation, but there are plenty of lessons available for gay and transgender youth should they take the time to consider its implications.

Oscar Prospects (Written Prior to Oscar Nominations):
Guarantees: Actor (Matthew McConaughey)
Probables: Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), Original Screenplay
Potentials: Picture, Director (Jean-Marc Vallée), Supporting Actress (Jennifer Garner), Editing
Review Written
January 22, 2014

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