Thursday, February 6, 2014

Let's Review Something: Dallas Buyers Club

AIDS was, and still is to a certain degree, one of the most misunderstood and underestimated viruses to ever take root in mankind.  When the first cases started to trickle in, it was dismissed by many and assumed to target certain individuals, many people feeling that it was impossible for them to catch it.  Even today, recklessness and misinformation has caused many to underestimate the seriousness of this disease.  The 80’s in particular were a rough time for people dealing with this disease.  Misconception caused many to ignore symptoms and then when things were unavoidable, getting the proper care was nearly impossible, and in a way it was absolutely impossible.

Enter Ron Woodroof.

Woodroof defines rather perfectly the entirety of these issues.  He was a straight man living a reckless life that contracted HIV and then ultimately AIDS due to his substance abuse.  He thought AIDS to be a gay man’s virus and thus he deemed himself untouchable.  He was wrong.  When he finally came to terms with his desperate situation, he found that getting the medications that would help his condition was harder than it should be, and in the end it became apparent that the drug being peddled to people in his condition was actually making things worse.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is that little film that could, that film that no one really saw making much of a stir past the obvious physical transformations of the two male leads and yet it went on to snag six Academy Award nominations and looks set to win at least two of them, possibly three.  When watching ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ I’m forced to ask myself what it is that made this so palatable to the Oscar crowd, and I have to say that it is for reasons that make them less than a great movie; sadly.  All of the things that AMPAS loves so much (sympathetic character arcs, simplified facts, stereotypes, underdog elements, broad theatrics) are rampant in this film, which is a sad reality when you get your hands on some of the facets of the true story behind this film.  This could have all played out so differently.

Ron Woodroof’s story is, in itself, rather remarkable.  Given thirty days to live and no real help, Ron was left to his own devises and with what he had, he lived for seven years.  Instead of laying down and dying, like he was told to, Woodroof sought out treatment, both legal and illegal, from all corners of the globe and wound up being a savior to many men and women suffering from AIDS and living without hope of ever really living.

‘Dallas Buyers Club’ attempts to tell us this story.

My main issue with this film is the direction from Jean-Marc Vallée.  You can lather on all the elements that make this a poorly written film and yet, with superb direction the film could have floated easier.  Sadly, Vallée’s direction is so pedestrian that the film feels almost dull, boring even, in many parts.  It just sits there, with little to no real presence.  It is also tonally inconsistent, and I blame Vallée’s inability to find his footing with the material.  The editing is also choppy (why was this nominated for that?), which leads to a very uneven film that feels like a collection of scenes as opposed to a cohesive story, with many moments that either feel out of place of unnecessary.  And this leads me to my issues with the script itself.  It just feels so flatly underdeveloped.  No real aspect of this story feels wholly fleshed out.  I also was baffled at the obvious ‘moments’ thrown in with no real context in order to present seeming character development.  That grocery store scene was so out of place and felt to overly theatrical for the character in question that it failed to do what it intended (show Woodroof’s growth as a human being) and merely made the film seem lazy.  Woodroof feels in many areas like a caricature, and some of the other players feel either completely vacant of all purpose (Eve) or like an extreme stereotype (Sevard, Barkley).  Rayon, while an obvious amalgam of every transgender stereotype of the 80’s, is the only character that felt whole to me, but a large part of that was due to Leto’s brilliant performance.

The film has come under fire recently for misrepresenting facts, especially concerning Woodroof’s persona.  I find this disconcerting, because representing Woodroof as a homophobe turned ‘gay rights activist’ feels like a cheap attempt to garner sympathy and, in the end Awards traction.

Still, with all this bickering and seeming nitpicking, I can’t say that this is an awful film.  It isn’t.  It is just anticlimactic, and a film of this nature (or a story of this nature) needed more than that.  When the film was over, I felt as if I knew very little about the man and his journey, and the dumbed down presentation of the fight for and over AZT left almost no impression whatsoever.  It almost makes me wonder what this movie was even about.  While there are so many serious issues with the law, medicine, healthcare and especially the state of those three things during this time period, this film seems to blanket everything with a black and white ‘these are the bad guys, this is the good guy’ perspective that it all feels false.

Both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto have been winning award after award for their transformative performances here, and it’s easy to see why.  They have very baity characters and have undergone such massive physical transformations to portray these characters that they are obviously being rewarded for various things.  For me, while McConaughey certainly gives of himself 100% here, he never really feels complete for me.  I blame a lot of this on the screenplay, which didn’t make Woodroof feel like a whole person.  This also was not a stretch for the actor, outside of the weight loss.  He’s played the charismatic Texas hick before, and aside from a crying jag or two (and I’ll mention that his crying scenes were his worst acted moments in the film), this feels like a typical McConaughey performance.  Leto on the other hand is actually rather remarkable here.  He completely disappears into this role and finds such nuances of character development, even with a character that wasn’t really given many moments to fully develop.  The look he gives after Woodroof defends him, the asking of his father for money, the breakdown in the mirror; all of these singular moments are heightened thanks to Leto’s beautiful performance.

So, in the end, I have to express a certain apathy for the film in general.  I just didn’t care much at all, and the sad thing is that this is one of those stories that we should all care an awful lot about.

I give this a C-.  It's honestly on the verge of a D, mainly because it almost doesn't try at all to be anything other than pandering to the award's circuit, but while the film is factually offensive in parts it is almost to dull to be truly offensive, and Leto is such a remarkable presence that he single-handedly boosts the whole experience for me.  Like I mentioned, Oscar gave this six nominations, and at this point it's pretty much locked up for Supporting Actor and Makeup.  Lead Actor is a little bit of a race at this point, but McConaughey is most certainly the frontrunner.


  1. I'm still waiting for that glowing McConaughey review! ;) I liked both performances, but I also prefer Leto's. The more I think about it, the more I don't want McConaughey to win for this, even if I give him a supporting win for Mud. Maybe Ejiofor or DiCaprio can surprise instead.

    1. There was this:

    2. Haha, I thought of that post. I guess I meant a glowing review for work during his resurgence (though, I suppose that counts as the beginning of it).