Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club is almost, very nearly but not quite, your classic Oscar bait fare. Based on a true story (although loosely appears to be the more than operative word), it depicts a lone crusader struggling against an oppressive establishment. Even better, said crusader is required to suffer a debilitating illness (actor transformation=Oscar nomination) and a bona fide arc all the way from bigotry to compassion. What more could the Academy wish for? Maybe a little less masturbation (never a vote winner)? Otherwise, compelling as the telling of Dallas Buyers Club is, it bears all the hallmarks of precision engineering in its emotional and narrative beats, which belies the low-budget indie vibe of the picture itself.
Such shameless manipulation of material didn’t attract the greater cinema-going public, however. Now there are up to ten Best Picture nominees, there’s more potential for films to slip through the gaps, with Nebraska and Her having brought up the rear this year, closely followed by Dallas; one would generally expect a “fight the good fight” tale to catch on to greater effect. It was the only one in the line-up (12 Years a Slave is more about suffering than reacting), so I can only figure audience wariness about an AIDS drama that didn’t feature the friendly face of Tom Hanks put them off. That, and Matthew McConaughey really does look awful, dangerously emaciated. Nevertheless, his shambolic, skeletal, unkempt features must have been as much of a sure thing with voters as Hanks looking a bit pasty. Still, Tom was nevertheless a cuddly AIDS victim; McConaughey’s appearance as Ron Woodroof approximates the rat with an unspecified venereal disease in Meet the Feebles.
McConaughey is superb, of course, but it’s undeniably a showboat turn. Every bit as much as DiCaprio’s in The Wolf of Wall Street (Ejiofor probably had the most difficult job getting votes, internalised as much of his performance is), but with the added bonus that Woodroof goes from racist, homophobic, self-centred, duplicitous arsehole to impassioned spokesman for effective AIDS treatment eviscerating the inveterately corrupt Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the process. His wily deadbeat charm is given a positive outlet, and as he attempts to smuggle prescription drugs across the Mexico border, fully able to argue his case against the officials who would bar him (claiming a car load of pills is a ninety-day supply), he’s an easy win for a sympathetic turnaround. That and, of course, his initially bilious but eventually affectionate business partnership with Jared Leto’s trans woman Rayon.
Leto’s casting incited some criticism from the transgender community, which may or may not be merited, but it’s the first role where I can actually recall liking the actor so superficially that’s reason enough to give him the Best Supporting Actor gong. I suspect it will be one of those Oscars that has little or no effect on his career prospects (I hadn’t realised he’d been off the screen for four years, probably because I didn’t miss him). Like much of the screenplay from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack (which Borten had doing the rounds since 1996), invention in the interests of narrative trajectory is the name of the game; there was no Rayon in the life of the real Woodroof, but without her there’s no touching emotional progress for Ron.
The level of fabrication has received complaints too and, while I generally have little sympathy for those who expect a dramatisation to stick to the facts, the level of calculation here is at times overpowering. After all, if the purportedly-in-real-life bisexual Ron with no homophobic views – as cited by some who knew him – were portrayed, there would be a whole opportunity missed for a learning curve (and for him to feel what it’s like when his own friends reject him). There’s a vague sense that such attempts to up the ante dotted throughout (a T-Cell count of nine, with thirty days to live; he’s like a superman, living for seven more years!)
Jennifer Garner’s friendly doctor Eve, the polar force to Denis O’Hare’s malignant Dr Sevard, is a considerably less effective invention than Rayon. Rayon’s a classically larger-than-life supporting character and an effective contrast to Ron, but Eve is merely there as the sympathetic smiling platonic straight woman to Woodroof’s antics. Likewise, as good as O’Hare and Michael O’Neill (as an FDA official) are, they pretty much one-dimensional villains once the lines of opposition are drawn. At times there’s a The People vs Larry Flynt sense of beckoning outrage in the character of Woodward and his interactions with the powers that be, and its fairly irresistible. Griffin Dunne has his most likeable turn in years as a disgraced doctor hiding out in Mexico, who puts Ron onto the good stuff.
The most engrossing aspect of the picture may not be the performances that got all the press. Rather, it’s the battle against an unjust system, and it’s the one area where the makers pull few punches, for which they are to be congratulated. AZT is presented as a poison from the first, a highly toxic substance most AIDS patients can’t tolerate (the end credits note Woodroof’s achievement as fostering lower doses of AZT, which might be a slight climb down as up until then it has been roundly denounced in any quantity). As Ron says, “The only people AZT helps are the people who sell it”; “That’s the shit that rots your insides. What a surprise; FDA approved”.
Ron’s metamorphosis from abuser of his temple to evangeliser about avoiding anything that damage his immune system further, right the way down to processed foods, is an inspiring one. And the venom with which the medical establishment turn on him for not falling in line, and effectively taking away their business, is instructive (one thing about Woodroof is that he isn’t suddenly Mother Teresa; he’s not running a charity, he’s running his own business – albeit one where he gets around the illegality of selling drugs by running a club membership service that covers costs). Before long the IRS are down on him (as he notes, that’s how they got Capone), and Ron is unequivocal that the game is rigged; “The pharmaceutical companies pay the FDA to push their product”. This is, after all, an organisation that attempts to label natural supplements as drugs in order to ban them.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s use of handheld camera rarely feels distracting or intrusive; it’s a testament to the strength of the story and performances that the choices only become noticeable when it is germane; the ringing that elevates on the soundtrack preceding one of Woodroof’s blackouts. Occasionally he lacks subtlety (the magazine cover featuring Rock Hudson – nigh-on the first shot – is easily the clumsiest moment) but the picture as a whole is both immersive and immediate; real locations and natural lighting may be a consequence of budgetary limitations, but they scream authenticity (the soundtrack is almost entirely forgettable, however).
It’s always fun too, when a character turns out to be an unlikely master of disguise. Especially when this involves dressing up as a priest. It worked for Peter Sellers. It worked for Norman Wisdom. It works for Matt (“And a blessed day to you, sir”). No one could accuse Dallas Buyers Club of being a slavishly literal biopic, although it’s as guilty as any of wiring itself for maximum contrivance. But like the best of those in its genre espousing even a whisper of social conscience, there is fire in its belly; a cause to be rallied behind. The film will be remembered mainly for McConaughey’s crash diet, but the meat of the picture is Woodroof’s David and Goliath struggle.