Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Dallas Buyers Club"

 4 / 5 

Dallas Buyers Club begins with man who isn't simply unlikable, he's completely without merit as a human being, and manages the impressive feat of making him into someone heroic.  Along the way, the movie becomes more than a showcase for Matthew McConaughey, it also gives us an astonishing, committed performance by Jared Leto.  McConaughey will deservingly get the spotlight, but Leto is equally remarkable.

The film is "inspired by" the life of Ron Woodroof, who in 1985 discovered he was HIV positive and given 30 days to live.  Facing the same sort of fear and rejection by his friends and co-workers that AIDS patients received by the public at large, Woodroof refuses to accept the prognosis, and almost by accident discovers that drugs banned by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, but available in other countries, might help combat the disease.

Woodroof becomes incensed at the staunch refusal of doctors to help him explore possible alternative treatments, and learns on his own that the initial tests of AZT are not only backed by the deep pockets of pharmaceutical companies, but may be lethal to patients.

He uses a legal loophole to bring unapproved drugs into the U.S. and to create a "buyers club," a group that provides the drugs for free to those who can afford a steep membership fee.  The movie makes no apologies for the capitalist way Woodroof establishes his practice, but it's clear that it's no get-rich-quick scheme -- he may profit a bit (buying a Cadillac and some nicer clothes in the process), but Woodroof uses the funds to secure drugs from all parts of the world, and members of the Dallas Buyers Club begin living longer than anyone expected.

Woodroof gains two primary partners in his enterprise: The first is a conflicted doctor (Jennifer Garner), who recognizes the benefit of what Woodroof is doing -- and sees the ultimate goal of the medical community as financial gain -- but has hesitations about helping him too much.  The second is a transsexual named Rayon (Leto), who latches on to Woodroof more for the companionship than the business opportunity.

The relationship between Woodroof and Rayon is Dallas Buyers Club's greatest strength.  Woodroof is initially repulsed by Rayon, but understands he has no one else to lean on for support.  Rayon, in turn, gets a chance to assert himself and his individuality (the movie never uses the female pronoun), and sees in Woodroof a rare chance to be accepted on his own terms.

Shot in a low-key, straightforward way that borders dangerously on cable-TV-movie territory, Dallas Buyers Club is visually unremarkable, and its script glosses over a few key moments to its detriment.  Especially missing is a key moment of realization that the Buyers Club concept allows for some good to be done -- or, perhaps, that it's purely a money-making venture.  In that, Woodroof's motives are never quite clear.  But the impact the Dallas Buyers Club has most certainly is, as is Woodroof's slow acceptance of the people he is helping.

There are no maudlin moments of sentimental self-realization in the movie; it's clear-eyed when exploring Woodroof's revulsion of gay culture, and equally sure-footed as it depicts his ability to work within a community that was long a source of disgust to him.  If Woodroof seems, by today's standards, to be especially despicable, the film reminds us rather pointedly that his attitude wasn't exactly unusual in the mid-1980s.

Without calling attention to itself, Dallas Buyers Club evokes the time and place with precision; it looks exactly as it should, down to Woodroof's embarrassing hair style.

Neither does McConaughey try to be flashy or showy.  There are few moments of flashiness in his performance, and he's astonishingly committed to the role -- not simply in the weight he lost to play the part, but in a perfect balance of compassion and pragmatism.  The man wants to save his own life; that he manages to save the lives of others is merely coincidental at the start.

Leto has the more visually striking role, beginning as a gentle, delicate beauty filled with easy wit and charm, never ashamed to be vulnerable.  As Rayon, he bypasses almost all of the typical behavior associated with transgender roles in film, and while he embraces Rayon's femininity, there's also a deeply moving scene that ditches the dresses and gets to the heart of who this person is underneath it all.  Neither campy nor archly tragic, Rayon is a complex, fascinating character (not based on real life, but created for the film).  Leto's performance is an indelible one.

Filled with memorable appearances by exceptional character actors (Griffin Dunne is particularly good as a doctor exiled to Mexico), Dallas Buyers Club may not be the most polished film of the year, but it's one of the most compelling.  You may know the ultimate outcome of the main character from the start, but how he gets to the end, and what happens along the way, is fresh and unexpected.

Dallas Buyers Club tells a great story well.  That it happens to be true, and that it happens to be the only major studio film in twenty years to even acknowledge AIDS exists, just makes it all the better.

Viewed Nov. 16, 2013 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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