Review: Dallas Buyers Club

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Ron Woodruff never saw it coming. Somehow sitting there in the hospital being told he’s tested positive for HIV isn’t simply life changing. It’s an insult. A degradation. The AIDS epidemic that descended upon the United States like plague in the mid-1980s was never even a consideration in his mind. Now this Texas cowboy is stuck with the disease for the rest of two-bit life. Dallas Buyers Club arrives in theaters at an interesting time for America, precisely at the moment when the debate over healthcare has returned to its white hot levels. Talking heads and politicians can debate endlessly over the virtues or flaws of the new healthcare law, but where are the people at the epicenter of all this? As a look into the battle between a man and the system, Dallas Buyers Club may not break new ground, but it still succeeds in putting a human face on a national crisis that defined a decade.

When Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) arrives home from his unscheduled hospital visit, he completely disregards the doctor’s warnings. He parties with friends, drinks, and does a few lines of coke. It’s another night as far as he’s concerned. It’s not until the usual festivities draw to a close that the truth begins to gnaw at him, much like the virus beginning to destroy his immune system. Confronted with his mortality, he races back to the hospital, confronting Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) for medication. Much as she wants to help the emaciated man, the best she can do is offer him to participate in a trial use of AZT at the hospital. The problem is that there’s no guarantee of Woodruff even getting access to AZT, as half of the participants are given placebos. With less than thirty days left to live, Woodruff is left to his own devices, and so he heads to a medical center south of the border that provides drugs not yet approved by the FDA. Outlasting his initial projected expiration, Woodruff obviously sees not only effects, but more importantly, a business opportunity. The biggest issue for Woodruff is his target market: homosexuals. An outspoken homophobe, he has no choice but to make an uneasy truce, even partnering with the high heel wearing Rayon (Jared Leto), who makes 25% of the profits. Woodruff’s business becomes so popular that he even finds new avenues internationally, but consequently finds himself on a head-on collision with the FDA.

In case you’re unaware, Matthew McConaughey has been on an absolute tear over the past couple of years, finding films and roles that have showcased his diversity as an actor, while never compromising his signature Texas charm. As Ron Woodruff, he digs deeper than ever before, especially in portraying a man whose prejudices defy easy sympathy. In his hollowed, wide eyes and shallow cheeks, McConaughey provides a life whose minutes are visibly ticking away. Also surprising is Jared Leto, absent from acting for several years, but his return is both humorously memorable and in one scene, quietly devastating. Jennifer Garner is also serviceable, but her involvement with the fight against the FDA, whether true or not, doesn’t quite coalesce as neatly into the primary plot. The film loses some of its momentum later on, as the film presents more of a sequence of events, and less a structured narrative. Yes, biopics aren’t meant always predictable, but the slack present in Dallas Buyers Club keeps its ultimate conclusion from feeling cathartic, if not resolved.

Shot on a tight budget, Dallas Buyers Club is directed by French Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee, and the moment to moment intimacy of the photography reflects the weight of time bearing down upon Woodruff. What’s most impressive about the film are its choices in editing, which goes beyond the nifty montage. Take the film’s bracing opening, as Woodruff manages a threesome right before a rodeo. Cutting from one intense close up to the next, we hone in on Woodruff’s eyes witnessing a bull rider catapulted from his beast. The animal turns and charges, horns a blazing. The symbolism may be on the nose, and yet it is startlingly effective. Few other symbolic cuts are made throughout the film, but some of the other devices such as ellipses make for bracing transitions. Like many that have come before it, the focus of Dallas Buyers Club is one man’s battle for a populace held down by a larger system. Though that conflict drifts in and out of focus, the thematic relevance remains, especially when it returns to Woodruff’s personal struggles. When a man is at the edge of his life, he makes the best of what time he has left, and though the film is essentially as workmanlike as the man it portrays, it is McConaughey’s performance that lingers, the dashing smile behind the deteriorating body.

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~ by romancinema on November 3, 2013.

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