Monday, January 27, 2014

Movie – Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Dallas Buyers Club is a story that combines a real life person with fictional characters in order to tell the tale of a straight man diagnosed with AIDS in Texas in the mid 1980s and how he came to be a proponent of alternative medications for treating the disease.  Both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto have been praised for their performances in this film.  They have already won the Golden Globes and SAG Awards for Best Actor (McConaughey) and Best Supporting Actor (Leto).  They are also the odds-on favorites to take home the Oscars.  In my opinion they are the main reason to see this film since the presentation itself has a couple of flaws in it.  It’s a film worth your time, especially if you are not old enough to remember when AIDS first started becoming huge news in the 1980s.

As presented in the movie Ron Woodruff (McConaughey) is the epitome of the redneck good old boy.  He parties with his best buds, drinking tons of alcohol, snorting lines of cocaine, and having indiscriminate sex with a succession of women.  There’s not a group of people other than his own that he doesn’t have something bad to say about, whether it’s blacks, Mexicans, homosexuals, or women.  In real life Woodruff was nowhere near as bad as we see him in the film, according to people who knew him. 

Woodruff is injured in his job as an electrician.  He wakes up in the hospital with a couple of doctors wearing masks to cover their faces.  They tell him that when they ran some tests they discovered he has AIDS.  His T-cell count is so low that they are amazed that he’s even still alive.  They tell him there’s nothing they can do for him and that he’s got maybe 30 days to get his affairs in order.  He’s in disbelief that he’s got the “gay cancer” because he’s as straight as they come.  He’s pissed at them for even asking if he’s gay.

After a few days he starts getting scared, though, and reads up on everything.  He comes back to the hospital looking for some medications he’s read about, but they can’t be prescribed because they have not been approved in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  He’s offered a place in a trial of the drug AZT the hospital is conducting, but when he finds out he might get a placebo instead he rejects it.  He pays a janitor to steal AZT for him, but finally the hospital starts locking it up.  He heads to Mexico to find a doctor that might have some.  Once there he collapses and is taken to the doctor.  This man who has lost his license to practice medicine in the U.S. (Griffin Dunne) tells him AZT is poison and that all that’s required are homeopathic remedies like vitamins.  His proof is that while Woodruff has been there he’s gotten healthier.  Of course, Woodruff is also no longer abusing his body with alcohol, cocaine, and hard partying, either.

Woodruff had met Rayon (Leto), a gay man who dresses as a woman, but who doesn’t try to pass as one, while in the Dallas hospital.  Woodruff wanted nothing to do with this “fag”.  Now Woodruff concocts a plan to buy lots of these homeopathic drugs and bring them back to Dallas in bulk to sell.  He needs customers (i.e. AIDS patients), so he contacts Rayon to hook him up.  Rayon insists on having part of the business.  They get around the law that says you can only bring in a 90 day supply for personal use, and that you can’t sell it to anyone, by creating a club where people pay monthly memberships and in return they get all the drugs they want for free.  The “Dallas Buyers Club” is born.  Woodruff becomes a rich businessman and drops most of the homeopathic treatments for real drugs that have shown effectiveness in other countries.  He becomes a self-made expert on AIDS treatments and travels the world in search of more effective ones to bring back for the club.

Woodruff is stymied at almost every step by the FDA.  He also makes an enemy of the doctor conducting the AZT trial in the Dallas hospital when Woodruff convinces so many people to drop out and use his treatments instead that it makes the trial useless.  There is one sympathetic doctor at the hospital (Jennifer Garner), but that’s it.  We also see Woodruff go from one of the most homophobic people to one that is 180 degrees different by the end of the film.

McConaughey is the heart and soul of this movie.  He lost nearly 50 pounds for the role.  He was still looking distractingly thin when he did his brief, but memorable, scene in The Wolf of Wall Street.  Add in the 2013 film Mud, which is also very well done, and McConaughey had himself a hell of a year.  Even if his performance and weight loss isn’t enough to convince a majority of people to vote for him, his overall excellent set of performances this year might just do it.  And I actually feel Mud is a better movie than Dallas Buyers Club, but its subject matter isn’t the kind that attracts much Oscar attention.

Leto also committed to his role by losing 30 pounds off an already slim frame.  His next to last film prior to this was Chapter 27 (2007) where he put on something like 60 pounds to play Mark David Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon.  Leto had not worked since 2009 because he was focusing on his musical group 30 Seconds to Mars.  He does a very good job in what is mostly a two dimensional role.  And therein lies my biggest criticism of this film – the writing.

Of the six Oscar nominations Dallas Buyers Club received I question the one for Best Original Screenplay.  The film is very heavy handed in its presentation of anyone who disagrees with Woodruff.  The FDA is evil, evil, evil and actually actively tries to kill people off by not allowing them access to the medications Woodruff is bringing in.  The doctors at the Dallas hospital are presented as uncaring because they have to conduct a blind study where some patients get placebos in order to test whether AZT is effective at treating AIDS or not instead of just treating all patients with it, but then they are presented as murderers for “pushing” AZT onto patients when there are unapproved alternatives.  At the end of the film, possibly for legal reasons, they do state onscreen that AZT, in combination with a couple other drugs, is the most effective treatment for AIDS and HIV.

And other than the Woodruff character none of the people in the film are really fleshed out much.  That’s probably because they were fictional composites designed more to further the plot along than to be real people.  That includes Leto’s character of Rayon.  When the movie got done I was thinking back on Rayon and realized that the film had told me almost nothing about him.  He’s there mostly to guide Woodruff along to his next discovery, or attitude change, or business deal.  There’s only one real time in the film where Rayon gets his own scene separate from Woodruff and that’s when he goes to his disapproving father to ask for money.  Even the conclusion of Rayon’s story is more about the impact on Woodruff than on Rayon.  If you would like to see a film that focuses more on the impact of being gay in a closed-minded 1980s society then check out Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallee’s 2005 Canadian film C.R.A.Z.Y.

Dallas Buyers Club features some questionable writing, but two very fine performances by McConaughey and Leto.  The latter overrides the former for me and makes this a film worth recommending.  If the description of it sounds interesting, or if you’d like to see these two actors in these roles, then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


  1. I've heard great things about the performances. Your reviews are always so thoughtful and descriptive. Thanks Chip!

    1. Thank you very much for the kind words.

    2. I've linked to other blogger posts that I've enjoyed this week. This was one of them. Thanks.

    3. Thank you very much again. When I get a chance I'll check out those links on your site.

  2. Great review! I feel that sometimes certain performances, esp. those as excellent as the two you mentioned here, it could *save* the film despite the weak writing. I'll give this a rent for McConaughey and Leto, sounds like their accolades this year are well-deserved.

    1. I think they are. We'll see if they both win the big one in another month or so.

  3. Exceptionally well-written and directed, this tough, yet tender-hearted film doesn't take the easy road towards winning your full respect and fascination.