Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Recent Watches: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

There are certain topics the Academy is attracted to. Serious real world topics like the Holocaust, slavery, war, and, the topic of “Dallas Buyers Club,” HIV and AIDS. A lot of films about these topics feature big performances to go with their big topics, sometimes throwing in sweeping cinematography or grandiose musical scores to help. While the performances aren’t exactly small, the film is a surprisingly low-key examination that organically incorporates its serious social themes in to an involving character study.

One out of five Best Picture nominations this year that are based on a true story, the film follows Ron Woodroof, a good-old boy Texan who, quite unexpectedly, is diagnosed with HIV during the early years of the disease when so much of it was misunderstood. In denial at first, partly because of his strong homophobia, Woodroof quickly comes to realize he has the disease. When treatment proves difficult, he begins paying off an orderly at the local hospital to supply him with drugs. When those drugs prove more dangerous then helpful, he begins to drive out of the country to buy drugs not approved by the FDA. In time, especially after befriending the transgendered Raylon, Ron warms up to the local gay community, selling the unapproved drugs through a “buyers club” to help others stricken with the disease. The film follows his struggle against the law.

What a strange career path Matthew McConaughey has taken. A career that started with films as critically divisive as “Dazed and Confused” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” segued most famously into lead parts in low-brow, stock-parts romantic comedies. For years, McConaughey’s rambling accent, frequent lack of shirts, and bongo-aided pot session made him a running joke. However, he’s been making efforts over the last few years to reinvent himself as a dramatic force, a trend that has cumulated with “Dallas Buyers Club.” McConaughey strips himself of his sculpted good looks, looking skeletal and sickly. Woodroof proves an ideal match for McConaughey’s strengths. The character is a wily bastard, determined to survive through any means, circumventing the system in order to live. Woodroof starts the film as a homophobic piece of white trash. The script never pushes his redemption too much, instead letting it evolve naturally. McCoanughey’s built-in charm takes the character a long way, making him believable even during his uglier moments. Woodroof’s will to survive isn’t painted with tear-strewn moments of silence. Instead, he’s a fiery person, determined not to go softly. Surely the Oscar-clip moment comes when guards attempt to escort Ron from a pharmaceutical presentation. His plea that he’ll be a thorn in their side until he’s dead is funny but oddly powerful. That McConaughey was nominated isn’t surprising and, dare I say, he might even deserve to win.

Also receiving massive amounts of attention is Jared Leto’s supporting turn. Like McConaughey, Leto has had a fairly checkered career up to this point. For every soul-barring “Requiem for a Dream” or memorable bit part like “American Psycho,” there has been a bit of forgettable teen fluff like “Urban Legend” or an embarrassing indie misfire like “Chapter 27.” For a while, he seemed way more committed to his cheesy emo band then acting. However, as transwoman Rayon, Leto does indeed impress. He, too, undergoes a starling physical transformation, sickly thin and done up in unflattering dresses and wigs. The effeminate Rayon proves a good foil to hyper-macho Ron, the two playing off each other. Most of Leto’s best moments are dependent on his chemistry with McConaughey, like when Rayon is confronted about his drug use. It would be a blatantly Oscar-bait-y performance if it weren’t so emotionally raw. Leto has no problem pluming pathetic depths, especially when forced to beg his disapproving father for money.

While the two male leads has received most of the attention, “Dallas Buyers Club” has a strong supporting cast. I wasn’t even aware that Jennifer Garner was in the movie until I watched it. Garner too is possessed of a small-town charm that is hardly used properly. The flirtations between Garner and McConaughey are one of the film’s biggest surprises. There’s a warm humor between the two, a weird, mutual respect. Garner remains a voice of reason even as her established wisdom is tested, causing her to reconsidering her own life choices. The film also features strong supporting roles from Steve Zahn, stepping outside of his tragic-comic persona, and a scraggly, bearded, nearly unrecognizable Griffin Dunne, as the grimly sarcastic doctor supplying Ron with unapproved drugs.

The film’s is anchored by a docu-drama style direction. Jean-Marc Vallee’s visual presentation frequently employs shaky-cam direction, lending a surprising reality to the situation. His camera focuses on the actor’s face, the presentation intimate and close. Even when getting flashier, such as a dementia episode Ron has while on the road, the film remains grounded. “Dallas Buyers Club” isn’t an overly flashy film. Like all good direction, the look informs the film’s themes and tone.

Despite its grim story, the movie has many funny moments. “Dallas Buyers Club” is at its most entertaining during the middle chapter, when Woodroof has successfully set up the titular club. He and Rayon go through a funny daily routine, people outside their doors, waiting for help. There’s a likable energy to these moments, keeping the audience invested. Watching McConaughey beat the system and do things his own way is satisfying while reinforcing the script’s point. It’s ultimately an underdog story, except this time the underdog is fighting for his right to live.

The movie has courted some controversy. Reports vary on the real Ron Woodroof’s sexual proclivities, many reporting that the film has exaggerated his homophobia or that Ron was openly bisexual. The first issue is one I’m willing to accept. The movie probably wouldn’t have been as affecting if it wasn’t a redemptive arc and Ron’s homophobia is necessary to make that work. As for the second point of contention? By removing these elements, is Hollywood hypocritically making a film centered on gay rights more accessible to middle America? Where there fears that Ron would be “too gay” if portrayed as bi-sexual? This seems pretty likely and, ultimately, leads to an another issue. Is the film’s message reaching a wider audience more important then fidelity to the facts? I’ll reluctantly say “yes,” especially in a time when equal rights remain a hot-button issues, when people with prejudice need to be reached and have their thoughts changed.

“Dallas Buyers Club’s” greatest success comes from its focus as a character study. By keeping things small, it allows itself to explore larger issues. It also proves a vehicle for a series of powerful performances. I went in with no opinion and found myself admiring the film quite a bit. [8/10]

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