Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (117 min.)

It doesn't take long to find out just what kind of scoundrel we are dealing with in Ron Woodruff.  We see him in the opening scene having sex with two women behind a closed gate at a small-time rodeo, while the rodeo is in progress.  Ronald Woodruff, the "hero" of Dallas Buyers Club, is a sex obsessed alcoholic, a drug addict, a bigot, a racist, and a severe homophobe.  He works as an electrician around birds of a feather, low-rent white trash who bounce between bars and strip clubs when they aren't on the clock.  It is 1985, and Rock Hudson has just put a famous face to the AIDS epidemic that was beginning to take over the country.  Woodruff and his friends dismiss the virus as something gay men get, only they don't soft-serve their language that way.  So it seems fitting, almost cinematic, that such a despicable and arrogant man would find himself diagnosed with HIV.

Ron Woodruff is played by Matthew McConaughey in a role that has been made famous because of his dramatic weight loss.  But beyond the physical, McConaughey's performance is one of nuance, layers upon layers.  Where this could have easily turned into an uplifting morality play, McConaughey keeps his characterization honest.  The performance is the summit of his recent, brilliant career transformation.  When Ron is electrocuted on the job he wakes up in a hospital and is told by Dr. Sevard (Denis O'Hare) and Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) that he has HIV.  Of course, Ron is defiant in the face of such a diagnosis.  He is told, initially, that the virus has depleted his T-Cell count so severely that he has about 30 days to get his affairs in order.  Instead, he goes on a bender of booze and cocaine for a few days before reality sets in and he accepts his fate.  His friends react as you would expect Ron to react had another person been diagnosed, painting his trailer with homophobic slurs and aggressively chastising him.

Ron's research takes him to newfangled drug treatments, like AZT, that are just being used on a trial basis in the states.  Other medicines are being used across the globe but have not been approved by the FDA, which becomes the villain of the film.  This is where the arrogance and determination of Ron Woodruff begins to work in his favor.  He steals AZT from the hospital for a while before his supply dries up, and then travels to Mexico to meet up with an exiled American doctor who tells him AZT is no good and sets him on the right path.  This meeting flowers, Ron's state improves, and he works tirelessly from here on out to bring these vitamins and protein supplements into the states.  His plan: not to hand them out for free, but to open a buyers club.  Membership is $400, the drugs are free.  The energy of the midsection in Dallas Buyers Club involves Ron sneaking these medications into the states, pretending to be a doctor or a priest.

More importantly than the business side of the story is the relationship Ron develops with another AIDS patient, Rayon, a transvestite played by Jared Leto.  Where Ron handles his diagnosis with anger, frustration, and determination, Rayon has approached his disease with humor, aplomb, and grace.  The relationship between Ron and Rayon is not played for melodrama or sentimentality; it takes a while for Ron to accept his new friend as a friend, and he never turns the corner completely into some forgiving saint in the end.  While McConaughey delivers the best performance of his career, Leto matches him with his finest work.  A supporting actor nomination is well deserved.

As the Dallas Buyers Club takes off into a real, legitimate business, Ron must fend off the evil government entities like the FDA and DEA.  They have no real way of stopping Ron's work, as the drugs are simply not approved as opposed to illegal.  Nevertheless, the fight continues as the business grows and Buyers Clubs sprout up across the country.  The idea that these proteins and vitamins were inaccessible by the FDA for so long is a crime.  We have come a long way as a society in the way we see, diagnose, and treat AIDS.  It is no longer an epidemic, but what is so fascinating about this film and the story is the way it sheds light on the early years of the virus, and the way fear and uncertainty hung over everyone's head.  

The performances from McConaughey and Leto are brilliant in Dallas Buyers Club, even though the film isn't always smooth sailing.  Segments are uneven and the end stumbles and fizzles when it should really pop.  The emotional build up is left twisting in the wind.  Jennifer Garner is serviceable as Eve, but something doesn't quite work in her performance.  As a plain, compassionate doctor, Garner never rings as true as the two male leads.  Nevertheless, the film is powerful as a whole body of work, despite any bumps along the way.  I think what keeps Dallas Buyers Club working is the unlikely hero at the center, a man who voiced opinions of many a little louder, and had to be assigned the worst possible fate to finally understand.