Films about causes are pretty tricky propositions. The problem with causes is that, while their backers may be well intentioned and their objectives noble, far too often the focus of any cause becomes about the righteous indignation of whoever the followers feel is the primary opponent in seeing their cause through. In terms of cinema, this means that films primarily focused on a cause or “issue” tend to be overcooked and overdramatized, with swelling moments of patronizing emotion that make the devotees of the cause fill with pride, but crowd out any humanity that should be the foundation of any worthy movement to begin with.
In the case of the tragic AIDS epidemic in the 1980′s, the primary purpose of films dealing with the issue seemed to be to inform the public about the seriousness of the disease, as well as shaming them for not doing more and for coarsely dismissing the breakout as “a gay problem” in a homophobic matter. What we have not yet seen though is a film that presents the plight of sufferers of HIV and AIDS from their perspective, without simply using their dire circumstances as a blunt instrument to make a point. I think we finally have that film in Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club.
Now don’t get me wrong, the film has some furor (particularly at the FDA), and it does address issues of harsh homophobia, but it’s not the singular purpose of the movie. The film is first and foremost concerned with telling the true story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), a bull-ring loving Texan with a amorous appetite for female companionship. His care-free, sex-filled, drug-powered lifestyle unexpectedly catches up with him when his doctors inform him he has contracted AIDS and has roughly thirty days to live.
Not one to easily give up, Woodruff investigates the disease and finds that there are many treatments that deal with the symptoms of the disease and prolong the lives of the infected. Only problem: all these potential treatments on not approved by the FDA. To get around this, Woodruff smuggles these drugs in from countries such as Mexico and takes advantage of a loophole which doesn’t let him sell the drugs to AIDS patients, but allows him to charge AIDS patients a fee to be apart of a health club, the Dallas Buyers Club, and then hand out the drugs for “free” as a benefit of the membership. In order to help him with this operation and gin up membership, Woodruff overcomes his overt homophobia and teams up with a transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto).
What works best about Dallas Buyers Club, is that for a film that could easily bog down in sappy manipulation instead chooses to tell its story in an unfussy manner. Straight forward, direct, and objective, the film matches the personality of its protagonist, which is fitting. There are a few predictable moments demonstrating the character’s homophobia early on, only to have a scene of showing his intellectual growth later on when he is forced to defend his new transvestite friend, but the film remains pretty low-key even in these scenes and does not abuse its relationship with the audience.
Now if you have been following any of the buzz for the film coming out of Toronto, you know that the majority of the response to the film has been about the movie’s two major performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, and both men do give strong performances. Much has been made of the remarkable change in trajectory in the career of Matthew McConaughey and for good reason, as it is one of the most drastic thespian makeovers in the history of cinema. McConaughey’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club is another solid piece in his transformation into an A-list actor and it’s worthy of the awards buzz it has been receiving, although I personally was more impressed with some of McConaughey’s other recent performances (such as in The Paperboy and Killer Joe) and I do not think it reaches the level of “give-him-the-damn-Oscar” such as Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in Lincoln did last year.
As for Leto, he gives a strong performance, wisely avoiding the broad-play angle actors tend to rely on when playing transvestites, and crafting a very real character. However, I have to say, I not nearly as enthralled with the performance as most seen to be, not so much because anything that Leto does, but more so because his character is surprisingly inconsequential and insignificant to the film. Leto’s character Rayon isn’t given very much to do that actually affects the plot and spends a large part of his time on screen just standing in the background. It’s a good enough performance that I won’t be upset when Leto is inevitably nominated, but it isn’t the earth-shattering turn that some have portrayed it to be.
Even with the good performances, Dallas Buyers Club isn’t a terrific film, and it will not end up in my top ten list at year’s end. Still, it’s a solid effort that deserves some kudos. In fact, for a film of this nature, it is probably about as good as it gets. Even so, the film fails to transcend the basic “human interest story” nature of its narrative, it just maximizes it to its full potential.
This article was first posted on September 11, 2013