Dallas Buyers Club

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (the wonderful ‘Café de Flore’, and ‘C.R.A.Z.Y’), ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is based on the true-life tale of an accidental AIDS activist. In 1986 Dallas, homophobic drug addict party boy Ron Woodroff (Matthew McConaughey) is diagnosed with HIV and is given thirty days to live. He starts taking the FDA-approved experimental drug AZT supplementing it with a beer chaser and a snort of coke. When the AZT drug makes him sick, he seeks out alternative medicine; and then smuggles the unapproved anti-viral medications over the border from Mexico. Along the way, he pairs up with Rayon (Jared Leto), a troubled drag queen to sell the treatments to the growing numbers of HIV and AIDS patients forgoing hospitals, doctors, and AZT.
This is a career-best performance for Matthew McConaughey who has really transformed himself from being a disposable prop ( ‘Sahara’, ‘Fool’s Gold’) to one of the best actors working in American film today (‘Mud’, ‘Killer Joe’). Much has already been said about Mr.McConaughey’s physical transformation for this role – he dropped 47 pounds. Those mighty abs featured many a time on the cover of ‘People’ magazine have melted away, and have been replaced with a thin layer of skin over bones. Surely, his beach body will return for his next commercial project. This role is perfectly suited for Mr.McConaughey’s swaggering charisma – he is extravagantly funny and deeply affecting.
Jared Leto lost 30 pounds for his role and delivers the “braver” performance – his character has a brunette wig, his eyebrows are removed, and his wardrobe is one that I won’t even bother to describe. Similar gender-bending transformation roles have led to Oscar nominations historically (recall Jaye Davidson in ‘The Crying Game’, Chris Sarandon in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’). But this is not part of an Oscar-chasing stunt; since both performers are at the top of their game, however, we can expect a Best Actor nomination for Matthew McConaughey and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Jared Leto for their terrific work here.
This real life story has been reduced to a David versus Goliath tale. There is where my two-sided review comes into play. I’m giving the movie a recommendation for the excellence of its performances. However, I do feel that ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ doesn’t stray far from its dramatic conventions – setting up a quasi-romance between McConaughey and doctor Jennifer Garner and establishing the government and pharmaceutical companies as clear-cut villains. The script even goes as far as having the FDA try to shut down Ron’s operations; but, this is a biopic so maybe that’s what really happened. Though the AZT drug is still used today to delay the development of AIDS, the movie outright damns it as a venomous non-solution that should be flushed down the toilet.
Mr.Vallée also puts a light comic spin on some of the material – for instance, as Ron drives through the U.S.-Mexico border checkpoint with a trunkful of unregulated drugs from his Mexican connection, we see that he is disguised as a cancer-stricken priest. There is a light, breezy flow to this picture with a heartbreaking subject. But, there is something a little unsettling about having this subject of our recent past (which has killed over 25 million since the first cases of AIDS were reported) so neatly engineered as crowd-pleasing entertainment.
And yet despite those reservations, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is an unquestionably moving experience. This is because of the believable relationship between Ron and his transsexual business partner. Their odd-couple pairing results in some laughs (in order to assure the heartache remains minimal), but it’s watching Ron’s discomfort and homophobia fade into an affectionate fighting spirit; and, one that never loses his wildly profane lust for life – his cowboy hat stays on. Mr.McConaughey transforms (a word I know I’m using often in this review) his character into a wholly empathetic figure.
It has been 20 years since ‘Philadelphia’ was released. Excluding documentaries like ‘How to Survive a Plague’ and ‘We Were Here’, cinema has almost shied away entirely from the topic of AIDS. I admire the film for having the courage to take on such a difficult subject; I wish the script had gone a little further in exploring some of the complexities faced from an FDA and medical standpoint (rather than simply supplying us with boo-worthy villains). But, this criticism may in fact be a little harsh – it just might have been a case of profit-chasing at the expense of patients’ lives. To be sure, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is a fine film thanks to the outstanding (and surely nomination-worthy) performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. It opens in limited released today and is playing at the Varsity. I suspect positive word of mouth will push this over to a wide release in the weeks to come. QED.

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