Tuesday, November 12, 2013

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB Is Difficult But Powerful True-Life Story


- Dallas Buyer's Club is a gut-punch of a film that is hard to get out of your head. I'd call it ugly. Ugly in that this is a film that doesn't shy away from harsh truths. Visually, Matthew McConaughey is almost hard to look at in the film. Playing real-life AIDS activist Ron Woodroof, McConaughey looks like the walking dead - bone thin and emaciated. It's also ugly in that Woodruff is no role model, despite the arc of personal redemption that he goes through over the course of the movie. Ron starts the movie as an ugly human being - a drug abuser and womanizer - crass and vulgar in the worst of ways. Finally, this is an ugly movie in that it sheds a harsh light on HIV, AIDS, and the seemingly futile war to fight it upon its rapid spread in America in the 80's. In no uncertain terms, the film shows how corporate bureaucracy - drug companies and the FDA - slowed the development and availability of effective treatments for the disease. Ron Woodruff starts the film as an ugly character, but his brand of ugliness is one that seems wholly American - the kind that has a strange sort of nobility in this country - the asshole cowboy who does what he wants, when he wants. But soon enough - diagnosed with AIDS and a death sentence - Ron experiences the ugliness of others. Branded an outcast and a virtual leper, he is forced to become the "other" that he always looked down upon.

This is a fascinating real-life story, and it all starts when Ron realizes that he has contracted the AIDS virus after engaging in unprotected sex with a prostitute. The diagnosis comes when Ron is already beginning to suffer severe symptoms of the illness - symptoms which he had ignored for a long while, before he finally collapses and wakes up in a hospital bed. Ron goes through a period of denial about his condition, but denial turns to frustration when he realizes how ineffective the drugs he's being prescribed are. He hears stories about better treatments in Mexico and other countries that are not approved for distribution in the US, and so he makes it his mission to track down these drugs ... not only for himself, but for the growing community of AIDS patients that he reluctantly finds himself a part of. Selling the drugs without getting caught proves to be difficult, so Ron finds a loophole: creating a buyers' club where members get the drugs for free as part of their membership fees. Soon, Ron is a thriving businessman, and a source of hope for a community that for a long time had no reason for optimism.

Ron's unlikely business partner is a sassy drag queen named Rayon - brilliantly played by Jared Leto. The two meet in the hospital, and Ron is initially disgusted and repulsed by Rayon, and wants nothing to do with him. The bond and friendship that eventually forms between the two is undoubtedly one of the movie's most emotionally resonant elements. Leto is absolutely fantastic as Rayon. His drag-queen persona is flippant and flamboyant, but Leto also shows us the sad and tormented side to the character. This could easily have been a one-note role, but Leto embodies it so fully that Rayon practically steals the movie. The film does a masterful job of depicting the sense of risk and danger that outsiders like Rayon felt in this not-so-long-ago era (and today, to a large extent). What might be more in-the-open today was, then, part of a fringe movement, a shadowy and hidden world. Rayon may have a flamboyant personality, but he was still a person totally confined to the margins - his suffering, and the suffering of his peers, was very much swept under the rug by most Americans at the time.

Back to McConaughey for a second ... he too just nails it in this film. While his grotesque physical transformation here threatens to overwhelm his acting, the acting is so good that that never happens. McConaughey has been on an absolute tear recently, in movies like Bernie, Killer Joe, and this year's Mud. But this has to be his crowning career achievement thus far - an acting job that confirms his status in the upper echelon of actors working today. This is full-body, full-commitment acting - the kind that gets down to the micro-level of twitches. And this is not something we've really seen from McConaughey  before. Often, he's the cool pulp badass, larger-than-life. Here, he's complicated, grimy, ugly - a firestorm of emotions and motivations.

Perhaps that's why the one part of the film that drags things down a bit is Ron's unlikely relationship with Jennifer Garner's Eve, a doctor at the local hospital who treats Ron, and who finds herself increasingly sympathetic to his fight against the medical establishment. It makes sense that she might be drawn to Ron the patient and his fight, but it's hard to see why she might have this connection with Ron the person. It's probably the only semi-false note in what is otherwise a note-perfect character study.

Otherwise, Ron and Rayon's relationship is built to perfection. And there's also a great relationship between Ron and his old buddy Tucker (Steve Zahn), a cop who's always had a some friction with Ron, but who now is forced to reexamine both his friendship and his concept of right and wrong. Similarly, Kevin Rankin - of Breaking Bad and Justified - does a great job, as a pal of Ron's who has a harder time accepting that his partner in crime has now become an AIDS-carrying outcast, who hangs around with folks like Rayon. I also thought that Denis O'Hare of True Blood was excellent, as an antagonistic doctor who doesn't have Ron's best interests in mind.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée gives the film a gritty, dangerous vibe that captures 80's-era, Southern-noir grime quite effectively. At times, the film has a nightmarish, almost horror-movie quality to it. At the same time, there is surprising heart. The film doesn't go for artificially-inserted Hollywood endings or anything like that. But the organic evolution of Ron - his outlook on life and death, his determination to help others, and - most movingly - his slow but gradual acceptance of Rayon and others like him, makes for several scenes that are genuinely affecting.

In terms of the movie's politics, I'm sure that particulars of what really happened vs. what's in the film will be picked apart by those looking for an agenda on the part of the filmmakers. But to me, the details are less important than the call-to-action in a broader sense. Ordinarily, I (and most of us, I suspect), don't dwell too much on the inner workings and politics of modern medicine. But the movie is an eye-opener, a reminder that we should be aware and awake to the political and financially-motivated decisions that affect disease research and treatment.

Separately, the movie is also a stark, powerful reminder that it's easy to keep our backs turned to those who are suffering, until helping them has some sort of meaningful financial or other reward for us. In a strange way, Ron having to work with the same sorts of people that he once shunned may have been a blessing in disguise. Ron was a guy who was used to living within a system that catered to him, that accommodated him. So he had very little tolerance or patience for being an afterthought. And that stubborn egotism is what fueled his fight against AIDS.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is, at times, a hard movie to watch. I had a constant feeling of unease while watching it. But it's also a memorable, powerful film that is well worth experiencing. On one level, it's got amazing performances - a career-best for McConaughey. On another level, it's a searing story of recent American history that still very much resonates in 2013.

My Grade: A-

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