Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hard to Kill: Dallas Buyers' Club

Dallas Buyers’ Club, based-on-a-true-story directed by Jean-Marc Vallee from a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, has a few big things going for it, right from the start. For one thing, it’s based on a true story that hasn’t already been well-aired on TV and in magazines. The principal published source of information about its hero—Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texas good ol’ boy and sometime drug dealer, with a rowdy, low-rent social life (and the homophobia that goes with the good ol’ boy territory who contracted HIV in 1985)—is an article that appeared in the Dallas Morning News in 1992, the same year Woodroof died. (The doctor who diagnoses his condition tells him that he has thirty days to get his affairs in order.) The screenwriters actually did some reporting of their own flesh out Woodroof’s story, and this gives the movie some of the fresh-ink feel of investigative journalism.

When Woodroof gets the bad news, he sinks into drugs and drink, though getting sunk there was already a big part of his usual routine. Then he shakes it off and starts buying AZT, which is being used in clinical trials, from a hospital orderly who sneaks it to him on the sly. When the orderly cuts him off, he lights out for Mexico, where he wakes up in a Third World hellhole presided over by an unlicensed American expatriate (Griffin Dunne), who tells him that the AZT helped trigger full-blown AIDS by shutting down his immunity system. Dunne plies him with vitamins and drugs that aren’t legally available in the States, and Woodroof returns to Texas transformed into a man with a mission. He doesn’t shed his homophobia overnight. (A split-second flashback to Woodroof banging a woman with track marks on her arms—the moment, he realizes, that he contracted the disease—seems meant just to take the possibility that he’s a closet case who’s had a secret life on the down-low off the table.)

But he’s furious at the FDA and the medical establishment whose decisions about who can be treated with what are affected by matters other than medical urgency, and that anger is enough for him to find common cause with the other sufferers looking for any lifeline they can grasp at in the Dark Ages of AIDS treatment. He starts a “buyers’ club,” setting up shop in a seedy motel room and selling “memberships” that provide his clients with access to a cornucopia of unapproved meds that he smuggles in from Mexico and from overseas. He’s still a drug dealer, but one who offers sick people a chance to reach beyond conventional channels and take charge of their own treatment. He’s also a hero who, like the crusading parents in George Miller’s Lorenzo’s Oil, is fighting the conventional attitude that doctors are gods who have mastered some unknowable field that no layman can ever hope to understand.

Jared Leto & Matthew McConaughey
The biggest thing the movie has going for it is McConaughey. He lost between 40 and 50 pounds for the role (depending on which press release you read), and this, along with the movie’s little-guy-against-the-Establishment bona fides, should be enough to make viewers wary, after so many Oscar-bait performances by actors who martyred themselves through some physical “transformation.” But even though the first glimpse of the wizened, bony McConaughey is startling, he’s never difficult to look at, the way that Christian Bale was when he whittled himself down to a series of sharp angles for The Machinist. Whether you find that kind of thing heroic in and of itself, it can sometimes seem like an alternative to acting, and Bale, for one, looked as if his starvation diet hadn’t left him with much energy to act anyway.

McConaughey’s performance is inspiring, not because of what he went through to get the right look for the role, but because as sick as he looks, Ron Woodroof is so defiantly full of life. (He never uses his condition to ask for sympathy or to ennoble the character. When Ron is at his most hollowed-out, he still manages to swagger.) He tells the doctor (Denis O’Hare) who gives him his premature death sentence that there’s “nothing out there that can kill Ron Woodroof in thirty days,” and having made that boast, his honor is on the line along with his life. The tacky, party-at-the-strip-club lifestyle that Ron has been living has been the only kind of high life that a man of his limited means and sensibility could imagine. As a global entrepreneur, he unexpectedly achieves dignity, even when he’s bamboozling a customs official by disguising himself as a priest with cancer and assuring him that the boxes and boxes of drugs in his car are his legally permitted “ninety-day supply” for his own personal use.

Jennifer Garner & Matthew McConaughey
Dallas Buyers’ Club has the basic shape of a conventional prestige rabble-rouser, and some of the particulars, too. There’s a scene of Ron interrupting an FDA event that serves no purpose other than to give the Academy Awards show an easily excerptable high point, and the characters representing the medical establishment are such one-dimensional bad guys that you’d think there was no good argument for an approval process of untested new drugs. (I kept wondering if anyone was going to ask Ron if, the next time he comes back across the border, he could slip some laetrile in his bag.) Some of the other characters, such as Steve Zahn’s friendly cop and Jennifer Garner in the larger but thin role of the good doctor cheering Ron on from the sidelines, are just serviceable, and the few close glimpses we get of Ron’s clients, such as the gay couple who give him a mansion to work from after his less palatial “offices” are shut down, are sticky.

There really isn’t anyone in the movie besides McConaughey who makes much of an impression, except for Dunne’s affable, gray-haired hippie healer, and Jared Leto as a (fictional) transvestite who becomes Ron’s conduit to the gay world, and who slowly takes the edge off his homophobia. That makes for a serious defect in what makes some pretense to being a picture of society reacting to the spread of the “gay plague,” but as a character study of a particular kind of very American hero, the movie, and McConaughey’s performance, are just about perfect. McConaughey even makes some of the scenes of his clients looking at him worshipfully less awkward than they might have been. Earlier this year, in Jeff Nichols’ Mud, McConaughey played a man who was, simultaneously and believably, both a violent white-trash thug and a gallant romantic hero, and by the end of Dallas Buyers’ Club, Ron Woodroff is a one-man crusade for more transparency and openness in the pharmaceutical industry while still being the same guy who used to hustle speed to rodeo cowboys. He’s an authentic unconventional hero, which in real-life stories remains the best and most convincing kind.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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