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Entries in Dallas Buyers Club [2013] (1)

Friday
Nov082013

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

American Horror Story

Dallas Buyers Club is a perfect example of a film whose overall quality is just shy of its myriad amazing parts. Anchored by two lead performances that may necessitate a new awards-season category, and buoyed by a wild sense of fun not typically found in disease dramas, Jean-Marc Vallée's movie is as compelling as they come. But at the center is a notable void where its heart should be, and I'm conflicted as to whether or not that even matters.

The story begins in 1985, and finds electrician Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaghey) banging two girls in a bull pen as a rodeo kicks off a few feet away. Later, after dodging a pack of pissed-off rednecks he's cheated at gambling, he collapses in his trailer from what he thinks is stress and heat exhaustion. Waking up in the hospital, though, he learns that his white blood cell count has plummeted to a nearly unheard of nine (from a normal range of about twelve thousand).

Woodruff's doctors diagnose him as being HIV positive, and the cowboy doesn't react well to being accused of having a "fag" disease. From our position of comfortable, modern enlightenment, it's easy for audiences to watch Dallas Buyers Club's opening scene and deduce that Woodroof could have contracted the virus from any number of places. But at the time, most Americans thought HIV victims were strictly intravenous drug users or homosexuals. Vallée and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack perfectly balance the horror of the diagnosis with Woodroof's bigoted reaction to it--maintaining the reality of the situation without making the protagonist into a cartoon character.

Woodroof is given thirty days to live, during which he begins scamming bottles of an experimental drug called AZT from a hospital orderly. The stuff turns out to be garbage, and he stumbles down to Mexico to seek help from an exiled American doctor (Griffin Dunne) in private practice. He's nursed back to health with the aid of various proteins and European drugs that, for various reasons, are not approved for use in the States. Upon recovery, he hatches a plan to smuggle the goods back to the US and sell them to a rapidly expanding pool of HIV and AIDS patients.

Helping him out is Rayon (Jared Leto), a gay cross-dresser who helps develop a customer base in the Dallas community. Despite the cowboy's antagonistic and nearly violent reaction to his new partner, the men form a bond that transcends business. Rayon brings Woodroof back from the brink of self-destruction to realize dreams bigger than he'd ever had prior to the diagnosis, and Woodroof gives his friend something more to do than shoot heroin all day. Together, they run the Dallas Buyers Club, a subscription-based pharmaceutical service, out of a second-story motel room. In short order, they have long customer lines and the unwanted attention of FDA agent Richard Barkley (Michael O'Neill).

From here, the film takes on a serviceable, TV-movie structure that allows its actors to shine. Like There Will Be Blood, Dallas Buyers Club is foremost a performance piece, and McConaghey and Leto absolutely astound with their portrayals of average men who wait until the end of their lives to take control of them. Just as I'd joked that Gravity was the first sci-fi movie filmed on-location in space, you'll swear Vallée gave his leads some kind of disease just prior to shooting. The actors are so unhealthy looking that I was genuinely concerned for their well-being throughout the movie--and not so much their characters, which is a slight problem.

Anyone who's written off McConaghey as a spacy, shirtless beefcake or Leto as a semi-retired actor-turned-rock-star needs to pay attention: both men turn in career-best performances that surprise and affect at every turn. On the page, Woodroof's transformation from ignorant asshole to anti-government activist might come off as abrupt, or even silly--particularly in a scene in where he disguises himself as a priest to get back into America. But McConaghey uses his charm and chops to make us believe in a man transformed by circumstance. Leto is the perfect companion, making Rayon a mostly sympathetic but ultimately flawed sort--he's not the gay equivalent of the "Magic Negro" archetype, a direction his arc could have very easily ended in.

Generally, a secondary character shouldn't shift a film's emotional center of gravity away from the protagonist. Because Woodroof doesn't approach self-actualization until the end of the film, he has no emotional arc. His story is one of knocking down obstacles of his own creation, and in doses, this is a satisfying substitute for deeper investment on the part of the audience. But as a whole, he's more a placeholder for a moment in history than anything else. Conversely, Rayon--or, more to the point, Leto--gives us much more reason to invest in his relative handful of scenes--even if they are free of surprises (we get the tearful confrontation with a cold, conservative dad, a solemn death scene, etc.).

I'm not sure how Vallée and company could have spruced up their film with the kind of weight that would've made it one of the year's best (as opposed to merely showcasing two year's-best performances), but they come very close to hitting the mark. As a wildly entertaining account of a dark time in America's not-too-distant history, Dallas Buyers Club can't be beat. Sadly, it doesn't tickle the soul in the way it probably should have. I recommend it only to those who don't mind leaving the theatre feeling like they've been educated and privy to some fantastic acting--while also a little starved for human connectivity.