Sunday, February 9, 2014

Dallas Buyers' Club

Alternate Title:  How to Catch AIDS and Influence People

One sentence synopsis:    A homophobic rodeo electrician becomes a drug importer and tireless political advocate after being diagnosed with AIDS.

Things Havoc liked:  The resurrection of Matthew McConaughey is one of the ongoing amazements that I encounter in my moviewatching career. From his romantic comedy and action hero past, which resulted in nothing but godawful movies about a tanned slacker who took his shirt off at every opportunity, McConaughey spontaneously began, about five years ago, to make independent films of extremely high quality, usually showcasing himself not as a charming leading man, but as a boo-ray hick or loathsome killer. The turnaround is so stark that it's barely explainable, but the result has been that McConaughey has re-invented himself with no less efficiency than Ben Affleck's transformation from star of Daredevil and Gigli, to Oscar-caliber director of The Town and Argo. Though I've certainly enjoyed the results of McConaughey's resurgence in films such as Magic Mike, Bernie, or Mud, I've always remained somewhat restrained in my praise. Perhaps it's my own fault, but I just keep seeing flashes of Sahara or Failure to Launch peeking through whatever characters McConaughey plays, as most of his new characters were somehow still charming leading men, just with dirt smeared over them.

Not this time. Dallas Buyers' Club is easily the finest performance I've ever seen Matthew McConaughey give, a tour-de-force of equal caliber to Chiwetel Ejiofor's turn as Solomon Northrop in 12 Years a Slave. He plays Ron Woodroof, a Texas cowboy and oilfield electrician in 1985 whose views on homosexuality are entirely representative of those held by most persons in Texas in 1985 (and many today). Diagnosed with AIDS at the height of the plague, and given thirty days to live, Woodroof's entire life shifts out from under him as he desperately searches for some means of saving his own life by any means necessary, including stealing supplies of AZT, an experimental anti-AIDS drug, and eventually even more esoteric regimens from illegal chop-shops in Mexico. Along the way, despite his lack of education or sophistication, he transforms himself into an expert on AIDS research, forcing complex technical studies and biochemical analyses through his head with sheer desperation to not die. McConaughey has played characters similar to this before, but never with this level of skill. Alarmingly thin, concealed behind aviator sunglasses and an 80s porn-stache, the evolution of Ron Woodroof, as his desperate efforts begin to succeed against all odds in abating his own symptoms, and his interest turns to marketing his own treatments to other AIDS patients, is portrayed with some of the most realistic care I've seen in any movie of the sort. Woodroof is a homophobe, by every definition of the term, and yet when forced, thanks to the need to establish his "buyers' club" of AIDS treatments, to interact on a daily basis with Dallas' homosexual community (where the vast bulk of AIDS patients are located), his views undergo a very subtle shift, as the experience of dealing with dying men on a daily basis humanizes them before the eyes of a man who, previous to this experience, had most likely never met a homosexual before. At no point does the film indulge in violin-scored epiphanies or tearful apologies for past, un-PC viewpoints, for those are not the things that reality is made of. McConaughey never once breaks character as he gradually transforms from boo-ray to AIDS drug activist, growing organically, rather than changing because the plot mandates it. This is how a homophobe becomes something else, and the process of him doing so occupies practically every scene in the movie. Any lesser performance would have torpedoed the film out of the gate, but McConaughey is somehow up to the task.

There is, however, more than McConaughey going on here. Jared Leto, an actor (and singer) I've never had much use for, here plays Rayon, a transvestite (or transsexual, the film is not clear) also afflicted with AIDS whom Woodroof recruits early in the process of establishing his Buyer's Club for the simple reason that, being LGBT himself, he has access to volumes of clients that Woodroof does not. Rayon is not a subtle character, addicted to various drugs, abusing her(?) body, and otherwise unreliable, forcing Woodroof to intervene in her life, changing her diet, putting her on a regimen of nutritional supplements and anti-AIDS peptides, and generally trying to keep Rayon together if only (initially) to keep his business running. The way these characters interact is a textbook example to would-be screenwriters of how to create believable character interaction. Woodroof's homophobia may fade, but his domineering personality never does, while Rayon speaks as someone no longer at all shocked by being treated as a pariah by mainstream society, who can differentiate when someone calls them a faggot out of hatred, or ignorance, or even frustrated endearment. The running gag of Rayon planting pictures of studly men amidst the pornographic pictures of women that adorn Woodroof's half of their shared office is actually hilarious, and the rare occasions where Leto is permitted to play the character "straight" (for lack of a better term) are riveting and poignant, particularly a sequence late in the film where Rayon approaches his estranged, bank-manager father, to aquire a loan to keep the buyers' club afloat.

All through the film, the movie maintains a relentless focus on the main characters, and how they, and the club they establish, changes over the course of time. Begun simply as a means of financing his own ready supply of personalized anti-AIDS drugs, the scale of the human suffering of AIDS and the desperate popularity of anything that offers hope against it, begins to draw Woodroof and Rayon into the political side of AIDS research. AZT, the drug-company-sponsored "treatment" for AIDS, proves a toxic solution, killing as many patients as it succors, and the FDA's rejection of other, competing, avenues of drug research steadily grows from disapproval to outright persecution. As Woodroof finds himself having become, almost accidentally, a tireless, fire-breathing activist for AIDS victims in general and homosexual AIDS victims in specific, the film holds to its focus, trusting to the odyssey of the main character as sufficient to hold the audience's attention. Most of the film is edited in long, unbroken takes, often without soundtrack backing, and with naturalistic lighting from overcast skies or clinical fluorescents. The intention is plainly to present the film in as simple, and realistic a fashion as possible, allowing the central story of a man confronting his own mortality, and finding new life in every sense, to rightly carry the film.

Things Havoc disliked:  Sadly, there is one major fly in the ointment, and her name is Jennifer Garner. I swore Garner off forever after the catastrophe of The Odd Life of Timothy Green, two years ago, and while Garner does not approach that level of annoyance this time, the movie reminded me quite keenly as to why I broke with her in the first place. Garner plays Dr. Eve Saks, a doctor in the main Dallas hospital administering the AZT treatments under trial, who first attempts to treat Woodroof as he is first diagnosed, and then later begins subtly sending her own patients to Woodroof's buyers' club as she becomes convinced of his process' efficacy. Along the way, of course, she becomes Woodroof's love(?) interest. Not only is her performance unavoidably wooden and unconvincing when placed alongside McConaughey's tour-de-force, the character itself is completely unnecessary, as she is effectively used as some kind of flashlight to contrast with the "uncaring, money-obsessed hospital administrators". While I appreciate the point they were trying to make, the fact is that the FDA's increasingly heavy-handed persecution of Woodroof's buyers' club makes that point far better than poorly-acted speeches against "the administration" of the hospital ever could. The hospital is offering a toxic treatment to AIDS patients while working with the government to render all other avenues of treatment illegal. Did we really need a board meeting scene starring a poor actor to ensure that the audience realized that this was "bad"?

Final thoughts:   It's a pity that Garner's performance mars this film, because when she is not on the screen, the movie is all but flawless, a relentless and riveting character study of one of the frontline warriors of the battles surrounding AIDS during the height of the crisis. The politics of the film are unsubtle, but the film is not attempting to engender a debate, merely pay homage to a man who, even if accidentally, wound up waging the sort of battle that had to be waged on behalf of millions of marginalized people being mercilessly culled by a terrible plague. Woodroof himself died of AIDS in 1992, seven years after receiving his thirty-day diagnosis. His life, adjusted for the sake of storytelling though it may be, has been transformed into one of the finest films produced in the year just ending. And McConaughey, at last, has proven that his transformation from laughing stock to master thespian, is finally complete.

Final Score:  8/10


  1. Nice review!

    (ps it's "Garner")

    1. Crap. Sorry. For some reason I seem to automatically add the 'D'...

  2. So, I haven't seen the movie (but considering certain Reasons of Interest I probably should), but when it came out I read this very interesting article from HuffPo, which was passed around by some of the more vocal LGBTQ activists in my circles:

    It's written by someone who was actively involved in the community and treatment efforts during the time. Understandably, he probably still has a lot of anger and bitterness that is influencing his view, but he does seem to make the excellent point that this movie is, for lack of a better term, a "colonialist" take on the whole time, since it centers on the efforts of a Straight White Man and how he is the savior of Teh Gays, instead of the multiple gay-focused and gay-allied-run communities that also sprung up to deal with the same problems.

    I am curious about what your thoughts are on his take, if any.

  3. My response, I'm afraid, is entirely unsympathetic.

    For one thing, the person who wrote this article has apparently not seen the movie. Not only are there references to other buyers' clubs throughout the film, but in no conceivable way are the only gay characters in the film "weak, docile, dithering, relegated to the background". Jared Leto's character, wherever he lands on the LGBTQ spectrum, co-founds the buyer's club, finances it when the FDA cracks down upon it, and is the sole reason why it is able to find enough clients to get off the ground. Numerous gay supporting characters volunteer money, locations, and time to assist the club (much to the chagrin of Woodroof, who still has not come round to the idea that he is doing anything but making a buck), and periodic excerpts on television document the increasingly desperate campaigns by various gay rights groups to fight the FDA's decisions regarding the assorted treatments they have rendered illegal. On top of that, the story is a true one. Is it incumbent on the filmmakers to MAKE THINGS UP about the tale of Ron Woodroof so as to satisfy everyone's desire for some kind of post-crisis catharsis and pats on the back? Or is it the author's contention that it is not permissible to make a film about Ron Woodroof because he was straight?

    Variety's review, probably overstated the matter, yes, but the base fact is that Ron Woodroof, gay or not, was a major figure in the fight against AIDS in the latter half of the 20th century. Were there others? Absolutely. And I have no objection to films about their contributions as well. For examples thereof, I suggest the excellent HBO film adaptation of Randy Shilts' "And The Band Played On", or Randal Kreisler's "It's My Party" from 1996. But the key word here is "contributions". AIDS in the United States overwhelmingly affected the gay and lesbian community. It did not, however, SOLELY affect them. And beyond America, the statistics were entirely seperate. In Africa, for instance, where something like 80% of worldwide cases of AIDS have been, it has been a disease primarily of the heterosexual community. In India it is something else altogether, tied into notions of class and untouchability, while in China it is a third thing, and in Russia a fourth. I did not see Mr. Mulcahey mention any of those things in HIS version of the story of AIDS activism, a story which, according to him, began and ended with his particular group doing their particular work. Laudible though that work was, and deserving of praise, there were AIDS activists before he became involved, and after. Most, in the United States, were gay. Some were not.

    No one has claim to AIDS. No one can credibly claim that their story is the only story worthy of being told about AIDS. If Dallas Buyers' Club had made the claim that Woodroof was somehow the savior of the AIDS epidemic, and that nobody else was involved, then this criticism would make sense, but it pointedly does not, and to make the claim, as Mulcahey does, that the film is unworthy of praise (independent of its cinematic qualities) because Woodroof was straight, then he is a fool, all the more because later in his article he makes the preposterously presumptuous claim that it was the work of a select few anti-AIDS activists such as himself which CREATED THE GAY COMMUNITY ITSELF. "In the awful crucible of that time," he writes, "something that had earned the right to be called a gay "community" was born." A man who has apparently never heard of Harvey Milk, the Stonewall or White Night Riots, or any number of other things should probably not start lecturing others on their limited views of history.

  4. To finish (character limits)...

    Schindler's List was not a worse movie for focusing on Oskar Schindler, a Christian German who saved Jews during the Holocaust. The Flowers of War was not a worse movie for focusing on John Miller, a European undertaker who saved Chinese orphans during the Rape of Nanking. Neither of those films represented the sum total of the Holocaust or the Nanking Massacre. Neither one was intended to. AIDS, like those other incidents, was and remains too great an event to encapsulate with any one person's story. This would be why so many films have been made regarding different aspects of it. The first rule of film criticism is that you cannot condemn a movie for not being another, different movie, and if Mulcahey cannot do that much, then he has no business speaking to the film at all.

    Dallas Buyer's Club is a fantastic film, of many qualities, which stands on its own as the story of Ron Woodroof. Ron Woodroof labored mightily on behalf of AIDS patients, before finally dying of AIDS himself in 1992. If his story is illegitimate, then so is that of everyone else. And it is not a "colonialist" view of anything to tell the tale of a man who contracted AIDS and went on to fight for the rights of others who were similarly afflicted.


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