Dallas Buyers Club (2013, Jean-Marc Vallée)

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Being cynical about Dallas Buyers Club isn’t hard. It’s another AIDS movie filtered through the ideals of Hollywood, made by, for and about straight people. It takes every screenwriterly movie-of-the-week approach, like diluting a bunch of people in the real life of protagonist Ron Woodroof into two very contrived sidekick characters. Cowriter Craig Borten interviewed Woodroof not long before his death of the disease in 1992, and has spent the ensuing twenty years attempting to get the story told on film, eventually to find it attached to an eye-popping succession of movie stars and directors around town. Woodroof’s personal story — of who he was and what happened to him — is not so interesting as what such circumstances caused him to do. Diagnosed with AIDS at a time when the only FDA-approved drug for treatment was the dreaded AZT, he used his cowboyish opportunism to create what was then known as a “buyers club,” whereby because it was not legal to sell the antiviral ddC but nor was it illegal to possess it, sufferers paid a membership fee to join up and receive a regular dose.

Borten and cowriter Melisa Wallack streamline things a little too expertly. Jennfer Garner shows up as an all-too-helpful doctor character slowly converted to Woodroof’s cause, cemented after AZT nearly takes his life even sooner than the thirty days doctors forecast for him. Woodroof was apparently bisexual in actuality but is converted into a violent homophobe for the purposes of the script, so that the diagnosis can provide his redemption (though Borten claims that this transformation jibes with Woodroof’s own telling of his story). Jared Leto’s trans woman Rayon didn’t really exist, is just a representative of the characters with whom Woodroof made contact as he made his enhancement of lives thought doomed into a kind of political hot button (pushing against government machinations to confiscate assets from his club and others like it). Her cycle of tragedy feels too pat, too telegraphed, too “movie.”

However, you could easily argue that these are criticisms of the film industry, not of the film itself — which, even with all these compromises, had to struggle to be made and then was forced to be shot in less than thirty days, with modern guerilla tactics (digital camera, no lights). It feels like a big movie, replete now with two major Academy Awards, but it isn’t; that’s the world we occupy now. If you can forgive its Mississippi Burning-like paring down of complex material, Dallas Buyers Club is a good melodrama and an interesting character study. Disregarding Garner’s progressive medical expert and platonic love interest (she is to this film as Brad Pitt is to 12 Years a Slave), the performers give the thing a lot of energy, as does director Jean-Marc Vallée — and as scripts with such bare cogs turning go, this one is strong. The result is breezy and entertaining, with emotional points that mostly land, not just about the way a pending death forces one to reconsider everything up to including their own integrity and capacity for risk-taking but also about decent people pulling together against darker forces. It’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t make Woodroof into a sweet-natured, huggy reformed fag-basher — he’s just a macho capitalist who wises up a bit. The movie neglects to even shame his hedonism, thankfully, and finds time to attack the fatal slowness and inadequacy of the American medical system.

Vallée provides a lot of what helps this rise above its formulaic nature. His solidly ambitious and eccentric directing style (it feels more like a ramshackle Hal Ashby-like ’70s film than any of Soderbergh’s that supposedly did the same) creates an enjoyable tension with the script; broad, lengthy takes make complicated dances through hospital rooms, recommissioned houses, crowded rodeos and dingy apartments. The use of natural lighting makes the film feel both urgently intimate and somehow evocative of the time it represents. Even the inevitable “progress” montages are rather good, and the motif of titles numbering days that far outpace the remaining life predicted for Woodroof makes the end of the film genuinely cathartic.

But all of the buzz around this movie is mostly about its performances; this is well-deserved. It’s troubling to see a female trans role filled in by a straight cis man such as Jared Leto, and there’s a decent chance that such a choice will look incredibly antiquated in a few years, maybe very few. But in pure performance terms, Leto does a praiseworthy job — he makes the character of Rayon distinctive and gives real gravity to her otherwise trite emotional arc. Leto’s never impressed me to this extent before but I’ve never disliked him as much as Matthew McConaughey — I’m even a skeptic of the supposed McConnaisance, having hated his performances in Magic Mike, Bernie and especially the execrable Killer Joe. But here, he’s very much suited to the material and does work that is heartfelt and believable. Decent writing, culled fairly directly from real life, probably helps a lot. But the full embodiment of the part goes back completely to the actor himself, and this is an impressively compassionate, sophisticated performance rich with detail — sick or suave, poised or weakened, there’s never a moment when you don’t buy him as Ron.

Much like McConaughey’s interpretation of Woodroof, the film itself is direct, unsentimental and witty without steeping to sap, cheapness or condescension. When it’s over it doesn’t leave you with much, but it’s a sobering and engrossing pleasure to watch — rewarding in the moment. No question, though, that the movie’s insights would be stronger — especially the one about fighting day and night to live a life that one doesn’t have to enjoy; in other words, surviving — if each and every one wasn’t dir-ect-ly stat-ed by a char-ac-ter at some point. Someday we can have a movie about this major part of our history that doesn’t require so many caveats. For now, Dallas Buyers Club is like a snapshot of Middle America waking up in slow motion: it has its small purpose, and fills it nicely.

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