No one is more skeptical than I am when it comes to movies where actors have starved (or gorged) themselves to change the shape of their bodies for their roles. To me, this is the textbook definition of gimmick. In Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club we get not one, but two such performances — yet either the film or the performances (or more likely both) transcend any reservations I can imagine. If Matthew McConaughey (who continues to build on his winning streak) and Jared Leto don’t garner Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nods, there is no justice in Oscardom. Moreover, the film that houses those performances is first-rate, too — assuming you can realize that this is a single, fact-based (based, mind you) narrative movie and not some comprehensive documentary about AIDS in the 1980s. (This relatively simple concept seems beyond some folks’ grasp.) At the same time, with startling candor, it does capture the fear, misunderstanding and stigmatization of the epidemic.
At its simplest, the film is a fairly basic redemption and transcendence story, but it’s perhaps the most unsentimental one I’ve ever seen. Oh, I’m not saying that Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t aim for the tear ducts. It most certainly does, but it does it in refreshing ways that eschew the expected big, redemptive moments. In part, this is because the main character never shows the least indication that he thinks he’s transcended a damned thing. Almost no one speaks of his growth as a human being over the course of the film — and if they do, it’s done indirectly. The character himself never even gets close, and distrusts any suggestion that he is a better man than he once was. Whether that distrust is real or a protective covering is immaterial. It’s this attitude that keeps the film from being awash in sentimentality. It’s also what makes the film more honestly moving than it would otherwise have been.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodruff, an electrician and sometimes-rodeo rider, hard drinker, heavy smoker, doper, unregenerate and indiscriminate womanizer and raging homophobe. He’s also none too honest, looks like death warmed over and is clearly ill. The film sets this up with amazing economy — a blessing, since you probably know all this from the onset. There is nothing remotely appealing about this man — and that doesn’t change when he learns he has AIDS. Of course, he refuses to believe that’s even a possibility, since he’s as straight as can be. (The undercurrents inherent in sharing women with his buddies are lost on him, but these are folks who think Rock Hudson starred in North by Northwest.) He abuses anyone and everyone who tries to help him. In fact, when he meets the AIDS-afflicted transvestite (and would-be transsexual) Rayon (Jared Leto) in the hospital and he assesses Ron with, “I guess you’re handsome in a Texas-hick, white-trash-dumb kind of way,” it’s hard not to feel that Rayon is being overly generous.
Ron’s attitude doesn’t start to change until he is shunned by his own friends (who, of course, assume Ron must be gay). Even then, it’s a slow process that’s fueled by his failing health. Ron remains — first to last — a sharpster, looking for angles — including making money off other people with AIDS by providing them with imported medical supplies that aren’t FDA approved. It’s this scheme that leads to the “Buyers Club” of the title (an idea he copped from a news story). Only very slowly do his motives — though he never admits this — become more than mercenary and self-serving. Even then, the transformation is low-key and dependent on reading between the lines of the performances. And the performances — especially from McConaughey and Leto, but with help from Jennifer Garner and (of all people) Steve Zahn — are what work best.
However, it’s wrong to sell Jean-Marc Vallée’s filmmaking — or the screenplay by first-time writer Craig Borten and little-known Melisa Wallack — short. The writing is smart and well judged. The filmmaking is frequently brilliant. The scene where it looks like Ron is praying in church surrounded by votive candles that turn out to be at a table in a sleazy strip-joint is marvelous. The same can be said of all manner of little touches — Ron’s realization of how he could have contracted the disease, for example — and whoever came up with all that T. Rex on the soundtrack should get special mention. In short, see this movie! Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use.
Playing at Fine Arts Theatre