Film Review – Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club
There is a formula for the disease-of-the-week movies I used to watch back in the ’90s: Flawed hero/heroine (usually heroine because this movie genre is a staple of the Lifetime channel) discovers he or she has contracted a terminal illness and has a short time to live. At first, the protagonist is disbelieving, then desperate, and then finally determined to find a way to live beyond their projected lifespan. He or she searches for a cure, while at the same time deciding to live life to the fullest—eventually surviving against all odds or dying a most noble death. Also, life lessons are learned and characters improved. It’s a well-used formula, but still satisfying because it manages to hit all of the right plot points to get the viewer where they expect to be. Jean-Marc Vallée’s new film, Dallas Buyers Club, manages to adhere exactly to the formula, which makes it both emotionally satisfying and slightly disappointing, considering its edgier subject matter. It’s exactly like a Lifetime movie of the week, but with more sex and homophobia.
Electrician Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) has been living it up for a number of years on drugs, women, and rodeo. His health starts to take a turn for the worse, but he ignores it and just does another line instead. After getting electrocuted at work and landing in the hospital, he is informed that he has HIV and gets handed some pamphlets to help him through his difficult time. He doesn’t believe he has that “gay” disease, so after some time spent in complete denial, he does a little research and discovers that HIV is not so gay after all, and he’s had a lot of unprotected heterosexual sex. He decides he wants to buy some AZT, the new wonder drug used to slow the onset of HIV and AIDS, but it is currently only available on the black market, and eventually he is forced to go to Mexico to get a regular supply. It’s there where he meets a doctor (an almost unrecognizable Griffin Dunne) who informs him that the AZT is doing more harm than good, and yes—there are some alternative treatments that he was been working on. Woodroof tries the treatment, experiences some improvement, and decides they can both make some money selling the drugs back in the U.S. He partners up with another patient, Rayon, to reach the homosexual community, and starts his new business. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated to sell unregulated pharmaceuticals than he firsts imagines.
This is not by any means a bad movie, simply an unimaginative one that plays things mostly by the book. There’s a lot of heterosexual sex, swearing, drug use, and use of the word “fag” that make it unsuitable for television, but the entire story arc underneath the roughness is pure TV-movie-of-the-week. And while it manages to hit all the right beats, you can see them coming a mile off. For the most part it’s well done, but the FDA and the doctor administrating the AZT trials are played as menacing bad guys with no real explanation (other than profit) for why they are opposing alternative HIV treatments. They are BAD GUYS, but it’s not enough, because they are so one-dimensional. It would have been much more interesting to have a more nuanced battle regarding FDA approval standards.
The performances are the best things in this movie, and pretty much everybody is spot on. A lot has been made about Matthew McConaughey’s painful-looking weight loss, and a certain amount of his success in the role has to do with his incredible thinness. He looks like a very sick man, not the handsome rom-com beefcake fans have gotten used to. In the last few years, he has chosen to concentrate on more interesting roles, and it is obvious that he chose this one for the acting challenge. He’s really good here, although his weight loss did occasionally make me uncomfortable. (But only when the camera lingered on him with the specific purpose of highlighting his emaciated frame. And linger it did. To the point of being a little creepy.) A lot has also been made of Jared Leto’s return to acting as trans woman Rayon, and he acquits himself just fine. I do wish that Rayon had been less of a Tragic Queer Character, but it fits within the conventional nature of the narrative. (But seriously, Rayon is a “Composite” character. They could have done whatever they wanted.)
Yeah, I have mixed feelings about this film; it’s definitely worth seeing for the performances, and it does somewhat satisfy on an emotional level. But it’s not great, and the story is clichéd and simplistic. I like movies about the triumph of the human spirit just like everyone else; I just wish there was more to recommend here. But there’s no real reason not to see it, and if it piques your interest, you should give it a try.