Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
There's your best actor. Maybe supporting, too.
That’s what I kept thinking watching “Dallas Buyers Club,” directed by Jean-Marc Valée (“The Young Victoria”) and written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. For a time I was even thinking best picture, maybe, possibly, a candidate anyway, but then the movie lost something in its final third. Was it the battle between Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) and the various government agencies (IRS, FDA and DEA)? Was that too obvious? Was it the absence of Rayon (Jared Leto) after her death? Was it the presence of Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks? Garner was out of her element here. She came onscreen and the energy just drained away.
But McConaughey? Hoo boy.
Gotta die somehow
He plays a good ol’ boy: a Texas electrician, part-time rodeo rider, and full-time racounteur. The first images we see are of a bucking bull from behind the fence. Since we also hear snorting, we think we’re getting the bull’s perspective, but it’s actually Woodruff banging a girl in the bull’s pen. He looks a bit thin and tired and has a persistent cough. Bad sign. A cough in the first act is like the gun in the first act.
AIDS comes into the conversation quickly via headlines about Rock Hudson. Woodruff is hardly sympathetic:
Woodruff: You hear Rock Hudson was a cocksucker?
Friend: Where’d you hear that?
Woodruff: It’s called a newspaper.
He’s more immediately concerned about a rodeo bet he made that went awry. He’s running from the men he owes money to—nearly a dozen cowboys, from the looks—when he runs into a friend, a cop, Tucker (Steve Zahn), who’s had to deal with this before and won’t protect him now. So Woodruff gets inventive. He decks Tucker. On the ride home, Tucker tries to give him some sound advice about his reckless nature and how it’ll likely get him killed. “Gotta die somehow,” Woodruff says in that smooth McConaughey voice. He says it like he’ll live forever.
A few days later, there’s an accident at work and he’s taken to the hospital, where he’s told by two doctors wearing surgical masks that he has both HIV and full-blown AIDS. His reaction is interesting. “You’re fucking kidding me,” he says. When Dr. Savard (Denis O’Hare) recounts the ways people contract HIV, beginning with homosexual sex, his reaction gets more interesting. “I ain’t no faggot, motherfucker!” The doctor remains calm and gives him 30 days to live but Woodruff is still on the first two stages of the five stages of grief: denial and anger. “There ain’t nothing out there that can kill Ron Woodruff in 30 days!” he shouts.
Over the next 30 days, he’ll go through the next two stages: bargaining and depression. At the library, he researches the disease, realizes how he contracted it (sex with an IV drug user, I believe, but it’s a bit murky), and searches for a cure that doesn’t exist. AZT is the drug bandied about, and trials are being done, but there’s a chance you’re in the control group—the sugar pill group—and he’s not willing to take that chance. So he gets inventive again. At a strip club he sees an orderly from the hospital and bribes him to get him AZT drugs, which he washes down with whiskey and cocaine.
During this period, friends abandon him. There’s a great scene where he goes to his usual bar, orders his usual drink, heads to his usual table of friends. But they’re no longer his friends. They call him faggot. He’s immediately ready to fight them all, and they want to kick his ass, but an interesting dynamic occurs. No one wants to touch him. No one wants to get within 10 feet of him. He’s a like-poled magnet: He takes a step forward and they a step back. He spits on them and curses the place as he leaves. He’ll do this a lot during the movie. I lost track of the number of times he left a room shouting, “Fuck all y’all!”
By the end of the 30-day period he’s left with nothing: no friends, no home (he finds his trailer home padlocked, with FAGGOT BLOOD spraypainted on the side), and the AZT is only making him worse. Plus it runs out. But the orderly gives him an address in Mexico, outside the realm of the FDA, so that’s where he heads. Because Ron Woodruff may be a lying homophobic asshole, but in this movie he never winds up on the fifth stage of grief: acceptance. He thrives at stages 2 and 3: anger and bargaining.
FDA, DEA, etc.
It’s in Mexico that the story really begins. I didn’t know this going in. All of this came as a pleasant surprise for me.
Near death, he’s saved, for the time being, by Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne, in a great cameo), who lost his license in the states, and who counsels against AZT, which destroys all cells, both good and bad. Instead, Ron should concentrate on building up his immune system with vitamins, zinc, and aloe. He also recommends DDC, a less-toxic anti-viral, and Peptide T, a non-toxic protein, neither of which are approved by the FDA. He thinks about all the AIDS sufferers in Dallas and says, “You could make a fortune off this stuff,” and a light goes off. CUT TO: filling his trunk with drugs for the trip back. There he starts the Dallas Buyers Club, modeled after similar clubs in New York. Since it’s illegal to sell non-FDA-approved drugs, he sells memberships into a club, which dispenses the drugs.
He partners with a transexual, Rayon, and soon has lines forming outside the motel room they’ve set up. He also attracts the attention of the usual government agencies: FDA, DEA, etc. A battle is enjoined and lessons are learned. He becomes more tolerant of gay people, for example. He keeps using the epithet “Cocksucker” but now it’s for FDA officials. That’s the journey he takes: from anti-gay to anti-government.
Some have complained, or celebrated, that this makes the movie too Tea Party, but for me it’s just too simplistic. It’s the brash homophobe protecting the poor gay folks who can’t protect themselves. The government gets blamed but not the infamously homophobic Reagan administration. Some of the casting doesn’t help. When I first saw Denis O’Hare as Dr. Sevard, I thought, “Oh, it’s the guy who usually plays a corporate asshole. Nice that he gets to play a ... No, he’s a corporate asshole here, too.” Kevin Rankin, the white-trash dirtbag of “White House Down” and “Breaking Bad,” plays a white-trash dirtbag. Michael O’Neill, who usually plays a bureaucratic douche, plays the main FDA douche. Etc.
But Jared Leto is a revelation and McConaughey is uncompromising in his portrayal. He’s corralled his charm and energy into the service of full-dimensional characters in good movies.
I did like the scene at the end before the district court in San Francisco. Woodruff has sued to use and sell non-FDA approved drugs but loses. It’s the language of the judge that I appreicated—the difference between law and justice:
Mr. Woodroof, there is not a person in this courtroom who is not moved to compassion by your plight. What is lacking here is the legal authority to intervene. I’m sorry.
What do you call that? A liberal judge not legislating from the bench.
I also like the final images: Woodruff riding a bull at a rodeo. You wonder if it’s current, if he’s gotten well enough to do that again, but it’s both flashback and metaphor. This is what he’s been doing the entire movie, and he finally gets thrown on September 12, 1992. He was given 30 days and took more than 2,000.
But then we get another title that dampens the effect of much of the movie: we’re informed that lower doses of AZT, the devil drug in the movie, wound up leading to the cure we currently have. So it was hardly a devil drug; it was just dispensed improperly. It confuses the movie’s clean formulaic lines, suggesting that maybe they shouldn’t have been so clean and formulaic.
But “Dallas Buyers Club” is still a movie worth seeing—for its performances, its energy, the fact that there’s comedy and adventure in a movie about AIDS. It’s also a good reminder of what AIDS and homophobia felt like 30 years ago.