Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Writers: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn
Release date: February 13th, 2014
Distributor: Focus Features
Running time: 116 minutes
Best part: McConaughey and Leto.
Worst part: The obvious symbolism.
Today, the first world looks to Hollywood for inspiration. Despite being an easy target, film and TV industries deliver symbols and heroic figures. Thanks to grand illusions, we forget that celebrities are people too. These awe-inspiring figures aren’t simply high profile people collecting giant paycheques while posing for photographs. It’d be easy for celebrities – bombarded with blissful opportunities, temptations, and fan-bases – to make simplistic choices. The late 1990s and early 00s housed laughing stock turned celebrated actor Matthew McConaughey’s extraordinary ascension. Falling into the leading man slot, he picked roles based on giant paycheques and mass marketing campaigns. However, he’s recently proven his worth within the ever-shrinking A-list club.
Fortunately, McConaughey’s slew of award-worthy movies – forming the aptly titled ‘McConaissance’ – has bolstered his once-declining filmography. With his star shining brighter then ever, low-key docudrama Dallas Buyers Club hurls this dynamic actor into serious Oscar contention. However, despite the praise, one mind-boggling performance doesn’t make for a wholly compelling docudrama. Continuing this Oscar season’s trend of fusing darkly eclectic docudramas with powerful performance pieces, the movie relies entirely on the courage of its convictions. The movie chronicles rebellious loner turned dilapidated pharmaceutical figure Ron Woodroof. We meet Woodroof during awkward yet eye-catching circumstances. Woodroof, a serial womaniser and irritable misanthrope, leads a repetitive and tiresome existence. Gambling over rodeo bull rides and card games, his insatiable lifestyle reaches critical and disastrous conditions. With his ‘enviable’ lifestyle delivering countless surprises, his identity shifts violently after an industrial accident. At his local hospital, he is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Taken aback by his condition, his existence is turned upside down. With his friends’ prejudices pushing him away, Woodroof finds solace through drugs and alcohol. At this point, the movie becomes a familiar yet likeable drama aching for attention. Beyond McConaughey’s physical, mental, and emotional transformations (losing 18kg for the role), the movie’s sterling attention to detail and spiritual weight launches it into overdrive.
My praise for this significant actor can’t be undone. Over the past three years, McConaughey – gracefully embodying ruthless yet sympathetic criminals (Mud), middle-aged strippers (Magic Mike), honourable and vicious hitmen (Killer Joe), and straight-laced professionals (Bernie, The Paperboy, The Lincoln Lawyer) – has become Hollywood’s most dexterous actor. Graciously, the Texan artist saved his best performance for this potent and Oscar-worthy docudrama. Though not quite reaching The Wolf of Wall Street and Killer Joe‘s standards, Dallas Buyers Club delivers heartwarming and confronting qualities. Based on this extraordinary true story, the movie blissfully and honourably explores American history’s most taboo subject. The AIDS epidemic, explored in major releases like Philadelphia, hits like an impactful gut-punch. Despite informative and controversial subject matter, the movie never asks for sympathy. Unlike similar medical dramas, the movie never looks down upon its morally driven characters. In fact, for the most part, the movie refuses to sit patiently in a hospital waiting room. Emphatically immersing us in Woodroof’s journey, this Erin Brockovich-like docudrama becomes a love letter to Middle America’s unique inhabitants. Thankfully, Woodroof and his enlightening journey are insatiably empathetic. Despite his brash personality, this character arc becomes a tangible and exhilarating thrill-ride. Driving through an entrancing time period, this movie’s 20-year production history, coming from a loving place, touches on this and last century’s most debilitating issues. Despite its obvious flaws, the movie’s immaculate relevance pushes it into Oscar territory. The story’s parallels chart Woodroof’s shocking transformations. In comparing Woodroof’s pre and post diagnosis lifestyles, the movie’s cliches stick out. In the first few scenes, Woodroof is the pinnacle of manliness. Snorting cocaine, throwing around dollar bills, and setting up saucy threesomes, certain traits telegraph Woodroof’s overt transformation. Pushing him into the country’s gay, lesbian, and transgender community, this homophobic and anger-fuelled man’s journey is eye-rollingly overt.
“Let me give y’all a little news flash. There ain’t nothin’ out there can kill f*uckin’ Ron Woodroof in 30 days.” (Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), Dallas Buyers Club).
Comparing Woodroof to animals and rodeo clowns, the movie’s heartening screenplay throws awkward moments into enthralling sections. Guided by his own middle finger, Woodroof’s abrasiveness and tenacity almost distort this otherwise heart-wrenching docudrama. Despite its overwhelming richness, Dallas Buyers Club‘s sappy moments and manipulative lines distract from profound narrative. With Woodroof’s transgender friend/business partner Rayon (Jared Leto) becoming a cognitive part of the Dallas Buyers Club, the movie’s touching relationships should’ve provided a well-rounded perspective. However, despite Woodroof’s commendable intentions, the movie delivers two dimensional discussions about major pharmaceutical companies, the American Medical Association, and the Food and Drug Administration. Depicted as insultingly villainous, the movie’s antagonists highlight its forceful agenda. Due to an ethically questionable screenplay, Dallas Buyers Club presents broad sub-plots and characterisations without delivering a textured viewpoint. Condemning experimental AIDS drug AZT, the movie hypocritically dishes out awkward side effects. However, director Jean-Marc Vallee(The Young Victoria)’s unique visual style elevates the questionable material. Hurling bleak colour patterns and practical effects across the screen, Vallee’s infatuation with this true story becomes evident. Thanks to the movie’s sickeningly dark turns, this mature and nuanced style amicably suits the material. Beyond Woodroof’s prowess, the performances bolster this conventional anti-hero character study. McConaughey’s turn is simply jaw-dropping. Adding confronting mannerisms to his sycophantic turn, MConaughey’s commitment is thesis worthy. In addition, Leto, known for Requiem for a Dream and Lord of War, fits comfortably into his bizarre and heartbreaking role. Leto’s first acting gig in six years places him in strong contention for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Unfortunately, the supporting characters are sorely underdeveloped. Jennifer Garner’s character, Dr Eve Saks, is a single minded and inconsistent plot device. Despite these gripes, Garner performs admirably in this middling role. Expanding her range, Garner’s inherent charm pushes her through the emotionally impactful final third.
Dallas Buyers Club, despite its niggling flaws, is an enjoyably manic docudrama. Thanks to his scintillating transformation, McConaughey shows that big-name actors aren’t just in it for the thrills. He, despite his peculiar reputation, is systematically changing the game. Like Woodroof’s work, McConaughey’s process expands our ever-growing universe. Along with Leto and Garner elevating mediocre characterisations, the movie’s intelligent messages, acute sense of humour, and shocking twists elevate it above Oscar-bait territory.