Dallas Buyers Club (2013) tells the story of Ron Woodroof, an electrician and hustler who after being infected by HIV, tries to work his way around existing laws and regulations to gain access to drugs that were not yet approved in USA then. However, as time passes, Woodroof (along with Rayon, a transgender woman also infected by the virus) started making the drugs available to other HIV afflicted people by selling “memberships”. Along the way, he also started to experience a change in attitudes towards the gay community.
The film is surprisingly good. I must admit, I had my initial reservations because, let’s face it, the movie sounds like pure oscar bait. And in a way, it is. Transgender woman with HIV? Check. Homophobic asshole with HIV? Check. Unlikely friendship? Check. Sensitive topic? Check. Drastic weight loss by actors? Check. And the list can go on and on…
The story, no doubt, is formulaic and predictable. However, I’d say that the film manages to overcome the typical traps of such movies, which include either a) turning it into an over sentimental, over melodramatic weep-fest or b) making into some hyper pretentious movie about the meaning of life and the value of friendship. The film does neither and portrays it as it is. The result is a fairly thought provoking, realistic and even heartbreaking story about the development of a man and his unlikely friendship. I thought this was exceptionally well-done, given how Rayon is actually a fictional character. The film doesn’t make Ron’s change in attitude towards Rayon obvious and manipulative, like in a “revelation” sort of way. In fact, the scenes where they joke with one another felt so natural that I thought it was extremely believable, which is particularly remarkable because such scenes involving unlikely friendships tend to feel a little forced and unconvincing in other films. You can see both actors are extremely comfortable working with one another, and that they are not trying to “sell” the authenticity of their friendship to the viewer, but to play it as it is. In fact, everything about the film feels natural despite the fact that the director Jean-Marc Vallee could have gone for the smaltzy or obvious humor routes. For example, the scenes where Woodroof disguises himself in order to bring the drugs over could have been made to be purely comedic, but it was instead portrayed in a toned down, naturalistic manner, which made the humor behind it stand out even more. The other symptoms involving Woodroof suffering from the symptoms could have also been played out in an over dramatic way but interesting directing choices such as the high-pitched ringing sound made the scenes more intense and believable.
The only minor issue I have with the film is the portion portraying the relationship between Jennifer Garner’s character (can’t even remember her name. I think it’s Eve) and Woodroof. I felt like their brief romance was there just for the sake of it, but it was a little contrived and this was the part that unfortunately didn’t escape the whole “oh, so predictable” feeling like the other scenes. The relationship between the two wasn’t really well built up, I thought, and I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that it did not happen in real life (her character is fictional too). Still, it was a really small scene that didn’t really have much of an impact so I didn’t mind that much. The other issue that I thought was interesting, but I’ll reserve my judgment on, was how the medical industry and the FDA were portrayed as pure villains.
The acting, I’ll admit, was immaculate. There you go, I said it. I was also quite doubtful at first because I’m not really familiar with Matthew McConaughey as an actor. Only movie of his I’ve watched before this was Tropic Thunder…so yeah. Besides, the part sounded like pure Oscar bait so I was very scared that I was going to watch a manipulative, overly eager to impress,
young Tom Hanks style performance that basically screamed “Give me an Oscar!”. However, this was not the case here. McConaughey’s performance is very honest, and I daresay subtle. Sure, there’s the usual excessive swearing and crying scenes, but I thought he portrayed the man’s development so naturally and realistically that I was totally sold. He could have had a big, Oscar-ish revelation scene to show his change of attitude, such as the supermarket scene where he forced the guy to shake hands with Rayon. However every single action and line was performed so naturally that it just as though it was already a part of the character rather than an actor trying to show off his acting chops. The character is very complex, especially when it comes to his true intentions behind setting up the club. He might seem a villain since only those who could afford the membership could have access to the drugs, but McConaughey managed to make us understand where the character is coming from, until the end where he decided to sell his car (not going to go into details about what happened).
Jared Leto is also receiving a lot of recognition for his performance, and he really deserves it. In a way, I think he had the more difficult part than McConaughey. The character is kinda like a ghostly presence, to be honest. He doesn’t really have a lot of lines, and in fact the male lead steals away the spotlight from him in their scenes together. Leto could have gone for the typical approach; making the character loud, flashy, over the top but ultimately tragic. Instead, he went for a more subtle approach where the character chooses to internalize his pain, but it ended up feeling a lot more realistic and heartbreaking. I mean, just the scene where he held the dress in front of him while looking at the mirror would have been worthy of an Oscar. The scene where he begged his father for money could also have been a typical Oscar clip moment with the tears and all, but he chose the more toned down, natural approach which made the scene much more effective. Sure, there are the usual jokes about getting boobs and all, but Leto never delivers them in a cliche manner. I must also add, his expression of gratitude towards Woodroof in the supermarket scene was fantastic. There were no words said at all, but I was totally moved by it. I’m not gonna lie, if he wins the Oscar for this performance I think it’s going to be one of my favorite winners in a while.
All in all, Dallas Buyers Club is a very good film. It’s bothering on great, but for some reason something is holding me back from calling it that. It could be the predictable storyline and the lack of the surprise element which admittedly influences my opinions quite a great deal. Still, I don’t want to sound too critical because it’s a really, really good film that I would easily give 4/5.