So far I’ve done a terrible job catching up on all of the Oscar-nominated films.1 No matter; it’s crunch time now so I’m catching up where I can.
I picked up a Blu-ray of Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club at the video store last night to close the gap on the Best Picture category (I’ve only not seen Philomena and 12 Years a Slave). My knee-jerk reaction on Letterboxd last night2 was that it was “sloppy.” In a nut, this film is two stellar performances wading through a disjointed narrative.
Much has been made of Matthew McConaughey’s recent spate of brilliant choices. From Bernie to Magic Mike to True Detective to this one, he’s been taking on increasingly complex roles and delivering great performance after great performance. His (and costar Jared Leto’s) most ballyhooed choice has been his weight fluctuation, winnowing his body away to almost nothing to play AIDS patient Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. (It should be noted that fellow nominee Christian Bale went in exactly the opposite direction, putting on poundage for American Hustle.)
The physical transformations actors go through may be impressive, but they are beside the point once the camera rolls. McConaughey’s talent comes from a place deep down inside, an actorly spark that cannot be taught. It’s incredible how many Texans one man can play without any (or minimal) overlap; each character is his own man, easily distinguishable from the others. His Woodroof is far more complex than the story lets on, though I agree with Richard Brody: McConaughey’s brief appearance in The Wolf of Wall Street far outstrips what he does here.
Leto manages to go toe-to-toe with McConaughey as Rayon, the transgender woman who goes into business with Woodroof selling unapproved drugs to suffering HIV patients. Rayon is a tortured character; she feels duty-bound to the maligned gay community (left to die while the FDA drags its feet approving new treatments) yet is also driven to keep up a nasty drug habit. She is capable of pulling off the impossible: tempering Woodroof’s intolerance. It’s not hard to see why. Leto imbues Rayon with so much humanity. She is tragically flawed and yet finds a way to keep going each and every day in the face of certain death. Woodroof finds a kindred spirit in her.
Narratively, Dallas Buyers Club is a mess. Director Vallée along with writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack do a good job of composing scenes that bring to the screen a specific time, place and crisis that I don’t think is often told. The AIDS crisis, in film, so often feels like a New York City (or at least North Atlantic, as in Philadelphia) scourge. Moving that narrative to another part of America, looking at it in the micro, is powerful stuff. Nonetheless the story barely holds together as the film progresses. We bounce from scene to scene as the story circles around. Woodroof hustles drugs, they dry up, he gets more, the feds close in, he fixes it, more trouble, he fixes it, and on and on. There are too many little conflicts that do little to inform us about these characters’ wants and needs. The story just keeps going and going until it’s over. And when the film does end I’m left to wonder what was gained, what was revealed?
One of my favorite, fleeting moments cuts down to Woodroof’s core. As most members of his Dallas Buyers Club are gay or transgender, the straight Woodroof, who previously never had to work hard to sate his sexual appetite, takes note of a young woman picking up drugs at his motel headquarters. Once he learns she has full blown AIDS not a moment passes before the two are going at it in the shower. When he was diagnosed, Woodroof entered a sexual desert. Despite the effects on his ever-deteriorating health, he kept up all of his vices (coke and booze) but one. There is something sweet and poignant about seeing him get to have animalistic sex3 without consequence once again.
It’s a real testament to the cast4 that Dallas Buyers Club has risen to the stature it has. McConaughey and Leto elevate an otherwise forgettable affair (I realize that’s an insane conceit, like saying that but for the cocoa those brownies tasted no good). Sometimes it’s not easy to separate out which aspects of a movie you like. I, for one, feel a little bad saying I don’t like the film since that there is so much in it that I do like. But all told, this one was a chore to get through.
Photo Credit: Anne Marie Fox, Focus Features