Day 252: Dallas Buyers Club

"God damn, I like your style Hiroshi."
A few weeks ago I wrote a spotlight about the resurgence of Matthew McConaughey, and how he's "put together a run of films since The Lincoln Lawyer that rivals the best run of any actor over a three year period." His latest film, Dallas Buyers Club, looked like a tremendous opportunity for him to show just how could he could be when combining his talent with a role he seemed born to play. The only question that remained was if the film itself would be good enough to support his performance, so I invite you to read on to find out the answer to that question.
Ron Woodruff (McConaughey) fits every stereotype you can think of when it comes to hard living good old Texas boys in the mid-80s. He's introduced as a hustler, who loves his booze, his drugs and as many women as he can cram into a single evening. When an accident at his day job as an electrician sends him to the hospital, some routine blood work turns up the fact that Ron is HIV positive. In a time when HIV & AIDS were mainly thought of as a disease that only affected homosexuals, Ron continues his hard partying ways, ignorant of the fact that the doctor gave him thirty days to live.
After a week, Ron decides to hustle his way into taking an experimental new drug called AZT that, at its current dosage, is having devastating effects on patients. When he gets wind of radical new drugs that haven't been approved for use in the US, he travels to Mexico and partners with a doctor (Griffin Dunne) to try a new combination of drugs that help him get significantly better. Ever the hustler, Ron travels back across the border with a large supply of drugs, and after forming a tenuous partnership with a fellow AIDS patient named Rayon (Jared Leto) begins a buyers club that offers HIV & AIDS patients drugs that work, despite not being approved for sale in the US.
Because the film is based on a true story, it has a familiar feel to it and hits a lot of the tropes of the uplifting underdog narrative that's been done to death a million times before. It's an interesting story, anchored by two fascinating characters, and if I have any complaints at all about the film, it's that it just doesn't rise to the level at which McConaughey & Leto's performances. It's a bit aimless at times, particularly in a bloated third act that feels at times as if it's never going to end, mainly because there's no real climax to the film. There are a series of half-climaxes and partial builds towards something big, but no major climax materializes, and the film just sort of drifts off into a pseudo-inspring standing ovation that made my skin crawl for how contrived and calculated it was.
That being said the film, particularly in its electric first hour, is quite good. The first twenty minutes or so are a bit heavy handed by setting Ron and his circle of friends up as raging homophobes, but it has a truth to it that most films would shy away from. While he seemingly overcomes his homophobia in one scene about halfway through the movie, he's still an interesting enough character to root for, and his very nature as a fighter makes him a driving force for the narrative. Rayon is a similarly engaging character, and one that seems to be content with irking and provoking Ron more than wanting to change him. It was a nice change of pace for this sort of character that bucks the typical "hooker with a heart of gold" story arc that's been done to death.
The film is also very definitely out to criticize the FDA and, by association, the Reagan administration for its handling of the AIDS crisis in its earliest days. The film puts a human face on this with an unsympathetic doctor (Denis O'Hare) and a heartless FDA crony (Michael O'Neill) who seem intent on keeping dying patients from getting any treatment other than AZT. This is true, and it was chronicled in a fantastic documentary from last year called How to Survive a Plague, but the film's insistence on hammering home their seemingly evil motivations will no doubt fuel talk of the film being anti-government and pro-free market. It's a tightrope walk to begin with, but the film has no problem demonizing these industries.
McConaughey is everything you could have hoped he would be and more, and his performance here is one of the best of his career. He brings an energy and vitality to Ron that makes him feel real and flawed and human. While the film never really dives into the notion of whether he's doing this for the money or to legitimately help people (save for one throwaway line late in the film), you believe by the end that whatever his motivation was for starting the Dallas Buyers Club, he's ultimately saving lives either way. He brings his own affability as an actor with him and plays on a lot of the built in notions you already have about him, and it makes for a truly incredible performance from an actor at the peak of his talent.
Leto is equally fantastic and gives a performance I frankly didn't think he was capable of giving. I've never thought much of him as an actor (save for his great performance in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream) but his time away from acting has given him a strength and maturity he likely would not have been able to muster five years ago. The rest of the cast is good, if a bit one-dimensional, with Griffin Dunne being a standout in his two or three scenes, but the biggest misstep in the entire cast is Jennifer Garner's performance as one of the doctors who first diagnoses Ron's condition. The character is a plot device at best, but with McConaughey and Leto having a method acting pissing contest on either side of her at all times, she just drowns. The handful of moments when you think she'll rise up and deliver her flat dialogue convincingly land with a thud. Don't get me wrong, the script does her no favors, but she's supremely out of her element.

Dallas Buyers Club is a good film that I recommend solely for the two phenomenal performances by McConaughey and Leto. It's not a bad film, but it's heavy handed at best and downright ham fisted at its worst. It's the kind of film that's made with an element of safety if for no other reason than to not turn off the portion of the audience that will benefit most from its message of acceptance and never giving up the fight, and the average moviegoer that stumbles onto it will be entertained by its often lighthearted look at some supremely heavy subject matter. It's a baby step in the right direction, but make no mistake when I say that McConaughey and Leto's performances alone will make you feel like you've gotten your money's worth.
GO Rating: 3.5/5

[Photos via RottenTomatoes]