Dallas Buyers Club

| November 18, 2013

“‘One Man’s Courage'”

It’s exciting to see an actor physically adapt for a role. Contemporary examples point to Christian Bale in Hunger and Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables. In Dallas Buyers Club, smooth tongued Matthew McConaughey slims (way) down to play AIDS patient Ron Woodroof. Watching the skin-and-bones performance, one begins to question the sincerity of the portrayal; is this actor aiming for something specific?

Dallas Buyers Club follows Ronnie Woodroof, a rodeo-obsessed Texan who is given 30 days to live after being diagnosed with AIDS. Committed to his time with the living, Ronnie discovers the medicine prescribed by the hospital is counteractive to his survival, while medicine in other countries – the kind banned by the FDA – actually prolong his life, at least longer than 30 days. To subvert the law and help fellow AIDS patients, Ronnie forms a “buyers club” that doesn’t sell these prohibited drugs, but rather charges a yearly membership fee in exchange.

The film is a period piece, starting in 1985 and concluding in ’92. Covering the film with elements and stereotypes from that era – despite the fear and homophobia that (further) arose during the AIDS crisis  – are left unseen by the filmmakers. Occasionally, clothing style or passing vehicles would remind viewers of the relatively recent past, but if the  epidemic were still considered a national emergency, Dallas Buyers Club might as well have taken place in 2013. Or perhaps the rodeo world in Texas hasn’t changed that much…

McConaughey is supported by Dr. Eve Saks(Gardner) and fellow AIDS patient Rayvon (Leto). Gardner does well with her awkward amount of screen time. At times she is confident, at times weak, and occasionally granted with dialogue deserving of her commitment to the character. Leto easily, though surprisingly, steals the show from McConaughey. The flamboyant character and outlandish actions of Rayon are treated with apparent discipline by Leto. It helps that Rayon is endowed with a captivating story, allowing the audience to appreciate the actor’s talents, unlike Gardner. Mr. Leto, take a bow.

Director Jean Marc-Vallee and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack fail to govern together on Dallas Buyers Club. Vallee, who has headed English and French productions, and even Mario Van Peebles, tends to let his Texas rib-eye mix too much with his vegetables and mashed potatoes. The narrative is too fragmentary in approach to garnish any Academy caliber sentiment, which judging by the Fall release date, is exactly what they were aiming for. With projects set to release in 2014 and 2015, M. Valle could (perhaps) achieve greater success with a moment of relaxation. Screenwriter Craig Broten has christened his career with Dallas Buyers Club, which never fails to show. Melisa Wallack also has a short resume, with screenwriter/director credit for Aaron Eckhart vehicle Meet Bill and screen story” for Mirror, Mirror. The duo excel in witty Redneck retorts (“You rattled my brain.” –  “What brain?”) and Lone Star philosophy, yet construct an uneven story. The correlation between the buyers club(s) of Texas and other states, Ronnie’s personal struggles, and the FDA require longer than a 117 minute run time. Instead, each topic, while certainly intriguing enough, is dealt with too marginally. Viewers are left with a cardboard house on a Hollywood backlot, which after opening the front door, certainly isn’t a home. 

McConaughey does (extra) well imitating himself in the role of Ron Woodroof. His Texan drawl, restricted emotion, and swagger are certainly correct for the character. It’s not so much seeing the inhumanly thin McConaughey shirtless that is so harrowing, but rather the sickly demeanor portrayed by the actor, which will certainly get some nods from the Academy.

My frustration, though, lies inherent in the intent of the film. Dallas Buyers Club isn’t Queer Cinema, but it certainly examines those topics; male sexuality, homophobia, HIV/AIDS. As mentioned above buyers clubs are interesting enough for the entire running time, yet the focus remains on a cliche: “One man’s courage in the face of…” story arc, albeit a piecemeal one. I point to Milk as a superb example of character study and lasting impact.  The (admirable) story of Ron Woodroof ultimately appears more a precursory figure in the AIDS movement rather than a mythical legend in need of the Hollywood treatment – as well as an entertaining vehicle for an actor.

About the Author:

Daniel currently resides in New York City working as a freelance writer and director. He is a graduate of the Film and Video department of Columbia College, specializing in Italian Neo-realism and French & British New Wave cinema.
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