Friday, January 17, 2014

'Dallas Buyers Club' (2013) directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

The first thing we see in Dallas Buyers Club is a rodeo cowboy struggling to stay atop a bull. It's shot in tight close-ups of its blank eyes, heaving flanks and bulging muscles: every tactic in the director's arsenal used to impress upon us a power and ferocity.  This bull is AIDS and the cowboy struggling to not to be dashed into dust is Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey).  As symbolism goes it's a heavyhanded but effective, neatly encapsulating the film's view of HIV/AIDS sufferers engaged in a frantic, visceral battle for survival.

Ron Woodroof is not a very nice man.  He swaggers around dispensing casual violence, dull homophobia and sexism like a walking Viz cartoon, a cocktail of testosterone, alcohol, cocaine and methamphetamine pumping through his veins.  But unbeknownst to him there's something even more dangerous swimming around his blood; the human immunodeficiency virus.  This is Texas in 1985, a time and place where HIV/AIDS is casually dismissed as "the faggot disease", so when diagnosed he angrily accuses his doctors of insinuating that he's gay.  Given a 30 day life expectancy he rapidly proceeds through denial and grief, settling for miserably guzzling illicitly obtained experimental drugs, cocaine and whiskey.  

28 days later he's a walking skeleton, powered only by anger at the injustice visited upon him.  After a brush with death, saved only by an emergency blood transfusion, he desperately heads to Mexico, where he learns that the experimental drugs he's been taking are destroying his immune system and making him sicker.  His resurrection spurs him on to greater things and so he heads back to Dallas with a car stuffed with unapproved yet effective medicines and sets up the titular 'Dallas Buyers Club', providing quasi-legal medical care to anyone that can stump up $400 a month.  His treatments work, and soon the HIV/AIDS wing of the hospital is emptied, the stage set for an adversarial battle between pharmaceutical companies, the FDA and Woodroof's endearingly ramshackle operation.

Dallas Buyers Club's biggest asset is the brilliant double act of McConaughey and Jared Leto as his trans assistant Rayon.  Both throw themselves into these roles with gusto, totally committing mentally and physically to the reality of these people's lives.  They're fascinating in n purely visual terms, their bony bodies setting them apart from the rest of the world. The men are ostracised for their sickness; doctors wearing breathing masks as they examine them; the public backing away, terrified of becoming infected themselves. At best they're treated with pity and condescension and at worst with fear and disgust - shared experiences that draw the sufferers together, developing a tightly-knit, self supportive community.

Woodroof's epic moral odyssey from asshole to messiah takes just two hours, the one constant in his transformation the tough as nails hustler's edge that allows him to figure out loopholes in the byzantine regulations placed in his path.  His friendship with Rayon is genuinely touching, the highlight being a scene where he sticks up for her against one of his old friends.  Despite the extent of his transformation, the film is mercifully free of scenes where Woodroof has emotional breakthroughs, McConaughey developing layers empathy and kindness literally scene by scene.

In any other film McConaughey would walk away with the acting laurels, but he's more than matched by Leto's astonishing Rayon.  She's an utterly magnetic character, Leto's cut-glass features giving her an aura somewhere between vampire and angel, embodying strength, self confidence and fragility.  As the disease takes its toll on Rayon she gets ever more brittle and desperate, to the point where the audience reflexively lets out a gasp of shock when they see just how little of Leto is left under the trashed out wigs and glam-rock frocks.

The problem with Dallas Buyers Club is that aside from these two brilliant performances there isn't a great deal else going on.  Aside from one or two visually neat moments the direction is competent but invisible.  This is a grittily realistic world, but it's one viewed externally, the director taking care to showcase McConaughey's performance, but never quite letting us into his head.  Another consequence is that any characters who aren't Woodroof or Rayon get pretty short shrift. Jennifer Garner as a doctor suffering a crisis of conscience is faintly unconvincing and restrained, though her secondary role in the plot turns out to be a thankless one that doesn't quite go anywhere.

More egregious problems lie in the script, which has far too many clunky expository infodumps where doctors explain the basics of HIV/AIDS treatment circa 1985.  There's a hell of a lot of "as you knows" in the dialogue, which sounds quite stilted and unnatural in comparison to McConaughey's raw, directness.  The development of effective drugs to combat HIV/AIDS is a just too complicated a story to be relegated to the background of a character study and whenever the focus is shifted onto wider issues the film suffers.  The recent documentary How to Survive a Plague soberly sets out that fight, anyone who's seen that will quickly realise how Dallas Buyers Club vastly simplifies the ethical battle that drives the second half of the film.

That said, it feels a bit cruel to criticise a film that does so much right.  My biggest fear was that the film would eventually devolve into sanctimonious melodrama, replete with vomit-inducing epiphanies and important lessons learned.  This never happens - even within the sadder moments Vallée maintains an earthy, sober tone that grounds things in reality. Given the rather grim subject matter it's fortunate that the film knows when and how to deploy a spot of gallows humour to briefly lighten the mood.  But first and foremost this is an actor's showcase: McConaughey and Leto's gobsmackingly great performances make Dallas Buyers Club a brilliant character study, though perhaps not an outright brilliant film.


Dallas Buyers Club is on general release from February 7th.

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