Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee.
2013. Rated R, 117 minutes.
Matthew McConaughey
Jared Leto
Jennifer Garner
Denis O'Hare
Steve Zahn
Kevin Rankin
Michael O'Neill
Dallas Roberts
Griffin Dunne
Deneen Tyler

Our saga starts in Dallas, Texas in 1985. Back then, AIDS was still thought of as something that affected primarily, exclusively by some, homosexual men. So of course, shock and disbelief are the first emotions felt by Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) when he is told he has acquired the disease and will probably die within the next thirty days. After all, he's a hard drinkin', coke sniffin', rodeo ridin' cowboy/electrician that strictly into women. Two at a time, if he can get them. It doesn't help that the gay community was openly frowned upon, more likely to be attacked than welcomed into a bar where straight folks hung out. Therefore, it's no surprise that once Ron's friends learn of his plight they ostracize him. He can't even hold onto his job. However, he's an enterprising sort. Despite it not yet being approved by the FDA, he manages to get his hands on the AIDS treatment drug AZT while it is in its developmental stages. When that doesn't work, he finds himself in Mexico where a shady doctor has prescribed him a cocktail of vitamins and drugs from other countries. When that works, keeping him alive well beyond thirty days, he enters into business with the doctor and begins smuggling these things into the U.S. and selling them in Dallas. As his local business partner, he surprisingly takes on Rayon (Leto), an openly gay man who also has AIDS and is hoping to save enough for a sex change. Less surprisingly, he also takes a liking to Eve, the doctor who cared for him when he was first diagnosed. Eventually, Ron takes the FDA head-on about their practices and which medicines should and should not be approved. This is based on a true story.

A lot has been made of the acting in this movie. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto took home Oscar gold for their roles. I won't begrudge either of them as they both performed excellently. McConaughey's physical transformation is nothing short of startling. He really does appear to be withering away. More than that, he fully embodies the character. Woodroof's backward views, as they are shown here, come spilling out of him even when he isn't saying anything. That isn't often, because he says a lot and never bites his tongue. He's also a guy with a quick temper. More than any of that, he's a survivor. We feel his hustler's spirit as he does whatever is necessary to go on living. On the other hand, Rayon is trying to survive, but he has some quit in him. He needs Ron to push him and make him continue fighting. It's a battle that bonds the two even as it constantly wages. Leto completely disappears within the character. For my money, he is by far the most sympathetic figure in the movie.

The fact that I feel more for Rayon than for Ron is where my problems with this film begin. I don't like Ron. Truth told, I don't have to like the protagonist to like the movie. In this case, however, the movie is kind of dependent on the viewer getting in his corner and rooting for him because he's become such a great guy. That's hardly the case, at least the way its depicted here. He's a guy who acquired a disease and exploited other people with the same affliction for profit. At no point, do I feel like his mindset has changed. Therefore, his actions and the end don't quite match up with the man he seems to still be. He still appears to be homophobic, a bit racist, and all greed even as his cause eventually takes on a magnanimous tone. Sure, he cares for Rayon, even takes up for him in public in occasion. However, it doesn't feel like he's changing his attitudes towards gays, but that this is his one gay friend. It feels much the same as a white racist not understanding he can be called such when he has one black friend. By the time his battle with the FDA escalates it feels more to me like a guy trying to keep himself both alive and out of jail rather than a man that is working for the good of the people.

Because of my issues with Ron, Dallas Buyers Club is a very uneven watch for me. On the one hand, I have to marvel at the performances turned by McConaughey and Leto. Both men turn in amazing work. From a technical standpoint, many other things work well, too. The movie has a great look to it, and the tone is spot-on with what's going on. Still, I can't equate what this man accomplished with heroism the way the movie wants me to. Did he do some good things? Sure. It would be foolish to say that he didn't or that they weren't impactful. They were. The fact they were helpful to many people seems to be something that happened to come along with the fulfillment of his own selfishness than any truly altruistic intentions. At making me believe otherwise, the movie fails. To be fair, the movie does an excellent job of painting the FDA in a negative light. Their greed is also readily apparent. I just didn't see what Ron was doing as entirely different. What it all boils down to is that while I recognize a number of good things going on, including the simple fact that what happened is important, the film as a whole doesn't connect with me.


  1. Mostly, if anything, this movie is worth seeing for Leto and McConaughey’s performances. Both are amazing and make this movie worth watching every single second they show up on screen. Good review Dell.

    1. They are both great, so I agree that it's worth seeing for them. The movie as a whole just didn't do it for me.