Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Beating the Odds

Dallas Buyers Club is a resolute film about a crisis in one particular individual's life and how that man fought to save not only his health, but also his dignity. It's a bit uneven (especially in the latter stages of the film), but overall it's a vital work that's uncompromising in its look at the sadness and uneasiness of his immediate world.

The film takes us back to 1985 when the AIDS crisis first caught everyone's attention around the world, especially with the news that Rock Hudson was dying from the disease in a Paris hospital. In the midst of that, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) a heterosexual man in his 30s, is afflicted with the HIV virus, due in large part to his frequent sexual activities as well as the large amounts of alcohol and drugs that weaken his immune system. When Woodroof learns of his condition from his doctors, he vehemently rails agains them, stating that this is a disease that only affects homosexuals; in his mind, his doctors have mixed up the blood results as he can't possibly have this condition.

He's told that he has thirty days to live, but he's too strong and too stubborn to believe that, so he fights. Woodruff has been battling with others as a routine part of his life - he's not a model human being - so he's not about to back down when confronted with the biggest challenge of his life. He bribes a hospital employee for samples of the test drug AZT, but when that supply dries up, he drives to Mexico to acquire other drugs. He can afford it and soon sets up a buyers club for other AIDS patients, who are also trying to purchase medication.

Soon, Woodroof meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite also afflicted with AIDS. He needs medication and is willing to pay Ron whatever amount of cash for the drugs. Woodroof takes his money, but at the same time, makes fun of him and his cross-dressing ways. Yet he soon realizes that Rayon can help his business, as he can attract clients who are in desperate need for any sort of medical help. The relationship these two share is the core of this film and it's no wonder that the scenes these two actors appear in together are the most convincing and moving of this work.

Along the way, Woodroof learns that AZT may not be the wonder drug that the medical and pharmaceutical industries claim it to be, so he is able to find other medications that can at least provide a longer life for AIDS patients. During this part of the story, the FDA comes into play, as agents do their best to shut his business down for various reasons. This section of the film, though expository and somewhat necessary if only to learn of the struggles that Woodroof goes through in order to survive, is not as well directed as the first half. Here is where the film loses some of its steam, as we're witnessing another "man against the system" story. It's entirely watchable, but it's just not as fascinating - especially in cinematic terms - as the initial personal battles we see Woodroof endure early on.

Jean-Marc Vallée directed the film and he does so with an obvious empathy for the two main characters and their personal conflicts. There are some nice visual touches here, as when Woodroof is shown alone in the stands at a rodeo. He sees a rodeo clown appear out of a barrel and then, an instant later, Woodroof sees nothing- is this a dream or reality? This depiction of what is real and what isn't in Ron's life early on is fascinating to watch. It's a pity then that the film becomes more routine as the plot devices come to fruition. The film is just a few minutes under two hours and it clearly feels a bit long - trimming 10-15 minutes would have helped - but overall, the film is very good and is often excellent and I applaud the filmmakers' decision to make this an honest film, even though what we're experiencing may not be so pretty.

It's the performances of McConaughey and Leto that truly make this film shine. In the hands of another actor, the role of Rayon could have been high camp or an easy call for sympathy. Leto has to underplay his part here and walk a bit of a tightrope, as this is a character that could easily be viewed as a stereotype, with all the obvious baggage that comes along with the portrayal of such a character. We do feel for Rayon, especially as we learn more of his story, but these emotions are earned. Leto's performance is a gem.

As for McConaughey, this role is the latest in his recent decision to do more than merely get by on his good looks. He gave a charming, almost effortless performance in the underrated The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011 and later that year gave a remarkable, chilling turn in Killer Joe, directed by William Friedkin. It was while I was watching this film that I finally saw the potential McConaughey had promised early on and realized what a strong actor he really is. He has to be an S.O.B. for much of this film and he's totally convincing at that, but he's also marvelous when he has to tone his hate down and see the humanity of others. It's easily his best performance, one that's sure to earn him an Oscar nomination. If you told me three or four years ago that I'd be writing that McConaughey would be in the running for an Academy Award, I'd have told you that you were a bit crazy, so how nice that that actor has proven many of us critics wrong.

While Dallas Buyers Club in the final analysis is not as solid a film as I would have liked, it is a memorable one, an important one and an honest one. I'm happy with that.

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