Article By: Dan Clark
Having death at your door can change a person. Certain priorities go by the way side, while others are quickly brought to the forefront. This exact phenomenon occurs in Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest film Dallas Buyers Club, where Ron Woodroof a full-blooded hard-living Texan and part-time rodeo bull rider has to deal with the devastating effects of the HIV virus. Inherently this based on a true story is full of sentimental drama and intricate conflicts. The issue remains how to handle all these multifaceted parts, and it is that question which consistently impedes the film. A little bit of focus would have gone a long way in collectively bringing everything together. Dallas Buyers Club is unquestionably a film worth seeing. The performances alone make it a must watch for any award season bucket list. If it was only able to be more cohesive it could have made better use of those performances.
One thing you must consider is where the world was when this movie took place. Today many if not all the myths associated with HIV and AIDS have long been forgotten. During the mid-80’s we will still yearning to understand the disease. Most of the world was plagued with misinformation. Woodroof, like many at the time, assumed it was segregated to only homosexuals and would not touch a man of his caliber. Slowly he begins to accept his fate, but he is not willing to go away silently. Working out of a room at a sleazy motel he creates an international network of unapproved medical drugs. A network he uses to sell the drugs the hospital is unable and unwilling to prescribe. What starts as a fight to save his own life morphs into a brutal battle against the FDA.
What will garner the most attention is the physical transformation Matthew McConaughey underwent to star in the role. Transforming your body to extreme conditions is not new for Hollywood actors. Christian Bale seemingly does it every other week. The question is within that change do we see a performance that stands on its own, or are we just crediting actors for their dietetic choices? McConaughey could have the physique of a chiseled Greek god and this performance would be nearly just as effective. He meshes his rebellious country attitude with a deeply hidden shattered soul. His portrayal of this character is the epitome of authenticity. Woodroof is a man’s man who lives a lower echelon rock-and-roll lifestyle full of sex, drugs, and fast-moving money. Likely due to that reckless lifestyle he contracts the HIV virus.
After contracting the virus he reluctantly becomes a major player in the homosexual community he once shunned. The handling of this moralistic change is one of the big difficulties I had with the movie. His change is drastic and without strong evidence. You can understand why he would take advantage of these people, but his deep concern comes off as false. Most of that issue is due to fragmented editing. Intertwined throughout are titles cards that chronologically spout off how much time has passed. This technique is nothing new for cinema, but it is not used with great effect. In a way it felt like an excuse to explain the disconnected flow of the story. I found myself playing way too much catch-up trying figure out where we were.
His relationship with Jared Leto’s character Rayon is the best example of this. Rayon embodies nearly everything Woodroof isn’t and does not care for. He is a cross-dresser full of unabashed pride. Due to a series of odd events he becomes the unlikely business partner of Woodroof. There are a great deal of powerful moments between these two characters. From their hospital bedside introduction to a supermarket showdown against Woodroof’s past friend, this relationship gives the film some heart and much-needed levity. The problem resides in its evolution and the lack of reasoning to justify the change. Leto does give a marvelous performance to match that of McConaughey’s. Seeing these two acting titans at the top of their game was a unique experience I was impressed to witness.
On the other hand this is a classic case of trying to do too much. This plot is an amalgamation of a man fighting for his life against a deadly disease, the creation an underground crime syndicate, an avocation of social change, and an examination of the conflict of providing proper medical care while adhering to the law of the land. Considering everything it entails it is not nearly the mess it could have been. Also it brings to light many issues with our medical system that are worth discussing, yet there was never any interconnection between these different parts. Nearly every scene would rapidly shift to different thematic element. One moment Woodroof is fighting prejudice he once took part in, and the next he’s swindling money from one of his suffering patients. Seemingly it was unaware of how it would almost contradict itself at times. I just wanted the movie to figure out what character it was trying to build.
One conflict that stood out above the rest was Woodroof’s fight against the FDA. At nearly every turn Woodroof’s attempt to sell these unapproved drugs is met with the FDA creating barrier after barrier. There is no question that during the 80’s the FDA’s practices to combat the HIV and AIDS epidemic where questionable and very often unethical. However, the film is uneven with its approach towards this dispute. It has the guile to depict the FDA and our medical institution as a whole as this group of callous villains consumed with greed, yet it never questioned the ethics of Woodroof. When Woodroof turns away a sick young man who cannot afford his medicine it is treated with a tongue in cheek tone. As if to say; “That’s just Woodroof being Woodroof”. By making what is clearly not a black and white issue into one the final message lands with a dud.
Part of the problem is due to the Jennifer Garner. She was the one person stuck in-between both sides, but her character was so lifeless and her performance so wooden that the struggle had little impact. Compared to the other actors she was out of her league in nearly every scene. Although I may sound overly harsh, Dallas Buyers Club is a movie I recommend. It avoids many of the tropes you find in similar stories that become consumed with tugging at your heartstrings. Thankfully melodrama is nearly nonexistent, and this story is supremely fascinating. Leto and McConaughey’s lead the way with such a force I only wish others would have followed more closely.