In 1985 Dallas, electrician and hustler Ron Woodroof works around the system to help AIDS patients get the medication they need after he is himself diagnosed with the disease.
Year 2, Film #60
THE REVIEW: This is the sixth of the nine nominees for Best Picture this year that I’ve seen and Dallas Buyers Club proves why it’s listed with the best of the best. I only knew that AIDS was a big focus going into it but didn’t know much else about it. Now I can remark on how interesting and compelling the story is, but much more than that, how the acting is absolutely incredible and gives the film a depth and an insight into the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS that simple storytelling cannot do.
Acting is the highlight of this film by a long-shot. While I’ll get to the story in a bit and the impact that has on the film, Dallas Buyers Club is all about the characters, and therefore, all about the acting. Matthew McConaughey (who plays Ron Woodroof) and Jared Leto (who plays Rayon) have been cleaning up this awards season including wins at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actor Guild Awards. And they both absolutely deserve it. McConaughey covers the most ground starting as just a normal man living in Texas only to find out he is HIV-positive after an accident at work sends him to the hospital. The doctors tell him he has thirty days left to live and from there, the film takes off. He goes through at least a couple stages of grief including denial and anger. What makes his acting so great though is that it could tell the film. His expressions and reactions are very subtle, yet so revealing that left with just the visuals, you’d still understand everything that is happening. Silent films relied on title cards and highly exaggerated motions because that’s all they had. McConaughey conveys the feeling of the film, the raw emotion that is has, entirely through his actions.
Jared Leto also does an amazing job but in a slightly different way. While he too brings a lot of subtlety to his performance, the more obvious acting challenge is playing a transgender woman. Roles that are anything other than an average male or female demands attention because there’s an added level of difficulty inherent in the part. To use another film as an example, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot has a difficult task of playing the autistic Christy Brown because Day-Lewis himself is not autistic and it’s not a character you often see in films. But Leto’s performance isn’t remarkable just because the role is unusual; it’s remarkable because he makes it look he’s just playing any other character. Leto also brings a lot of subtlety and depth to the story through his actions, like McConaughey does. These two are really responsible for bringing this story to life because Dallas Buyers Club is all about the internal turmoil these characters face. The story, which I’ll get into more in a bit, is interesting and helps draw you into the film, but without these two characters and a performance to attach everything to, things would fall flat and not have the same impact as they do because of McConaughey and Leto.
Speaking of the story, it is indeed very interesting. Philadelphia, which was released in 1993 and was one of the first major Hollywood films to focus on HIV/AIDS, was really a story about homophobia and how prevalent it is in our society. Dallas Buyers Club does talk a bit about homophobia and acceptance of gay people, but the main focus of this story is the effect of the AIDS pandemic. It is a story about survival and doing what has to be done in order to stay alive. Ron Woodroof experiments with all sorts of medication just to live for another day. After finding that the “approved” drug AZT (a drug that’s currently undergoing trials for FDA approval) is doing him more harm than good, he turns to a doctor in Mexico who prescribes him with unapproved (but also not illegal) drugs that do in fact alleviate many of his symptoms. What’s interesting about the story is where it goes from here. The film is based on a true story, a story of which I had no idea existed. In order to help others, Ron, and many others around the country. circumvented the FDA by forming “buyers clubs” where people bought memberships that provided free drugs rather than buying the drugs directly (thereby remaining within the law).
But while it keeps you engaged throughout the film, there are a few parts that are less than ideal. The first minor issue I have with the story is how it deals with time. In the beginning when we see Ron is given just thirty days left to live, the title cards in between major scenes denoting what day it is (e.g. Day 1, Day 7, etc.) are actually very useful. With this very clear, and very short, timeframe it helps to identify where in this final month we are. Once we get past those thirty days (thanks to those unapproved drugs), the title cards are less helpful and a bit distracting actually. The title cards now say “Six Months Later”, or something similar, and there’s a few of these. However, once you get to the end of the movie and another “Six Months Later” title card comes up, you have lost all sense of overall time. “Six Months Later” no longer helps you figure out where exactly you are in the grand scheme of things as it did in the finite month and the result is that it distracts a bit from the story itself.
Another issue with the story is the involvement of the local doctors: Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). These doctors are here to push the trials of AZT to reach final approval from the FDA and to oppose Ron and Rayon’s push for the unapproved drugs. In a sense, they’re the “bad guys” of the film because they’re opposing Ron and Rayon and trying to make things more difficult for them (under the guise of wanting to help). The problem is that we never form a strong connection with them, even a strong negative connection. Their point of view — pushing for the official, lab-tested, data-driven results — is never really established as a good one and we’re left only with the side we’re rooting for — the experimental, untested but proven route. The FDA and DEA officials, mainly Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill), are incorporated into the story much better and provide an area to focus our attention. He wants to confiscate the drugs and arrest Ron: very clear and straightforward. The doctors: not so much.
Dallas Buyers Club is an extremely interesting and gripping story about two people living with AIDS. A few minor issues aside, this story really makes an impact and a large part of that reason is the downright phenomenal acting by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. These two, hands-down, deserve win for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Granted, I still need to see the nominees for 12 Years a Slave and Nebraska, but compared with what I’ve seen so far, McConaughey and Leto are easily the most deserving. They give a new meaning to subtlety and how much of a story can be told without words but just by looking at the raw emotion in their eyes and in their actions. It won’t be appealing to everyone, or at least, not as a “watch anytime” kind of movie. Dallas Buyers Club has it’s time and it’s place and if you’re up for it, it’s a very good watch.
THE RATING: 4 out of 5