Sunday, November 17, 2013
Jean-Marc Vallée | Dallas Buyers Club
By Douglas Messerli
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack (screenplay, based on a newspaper article by Bill Minutaglio), Jean-Marc Vallée (director) Dallas Buyers Club / 2013
French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club received almost universally rave reviews—at least in the newspapers and magazines I regularly read (The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, and LA Weekly)—and actors Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won awards at the Hollywood Film Awards and other film festivals. It is highly likely that both McCanughey and Leto will be nominated for Academy Awards as well.
But let’s be honest, the likeable film’s story-line can only be described as “slight.” Not in its subject matter, given the gravitas of the AIDs epidemic beginning in the 1980s, which killed thousands (I myself might have perhaps been a victim had it not been for luck and my meeting my life-companion at age 23), but in the sparseness of its tale. Given its most serious subject-matter, one might have liked to see, in this case, a bit more political complexity, linking the central characters’, Ron Woodroof (McCanughey) and the transgender Rayon (Leto), with the plights of thousands throughout the country who died simply because US government leaders and the FDA did not choose to act, in part because the disease was most prevalent, a first, within the minority, homosexual community. What really happened in those early years, and to a certain degree for years after, was a kind of unspoken genocide, with President Reagan himself, dismissing any further “action,” refusing to speed up clinical trials and to fund alternative possibilities.
Certainly one can understand why the director chose not to focus on the larger issues, preferring to burrow down upon his central figure to tell his particular story that might stand as a symbolic yarn of the experience so many others. But the strategy, nonetheless, lessens the power of his final product.
As it stands, Dallas Buyers Club is less about the issues it raises as it is about the characters upon whom it focuses: a homophobic, Texas “good ole boy,” whose believes fucking, drinking, and bull-riding represent what he describes as “a normal life,” and Rayon, a frightened and unhappy “Miss Man”—as Woodroof describes her—a transgender drug-addict. Both, in the last stages of AIDS, are extremely anorexic and in their unsteady and constantly angular movements devour the screen, almost swallowing up the good, if not excellent, performances by Jennifer Garner as a doctor tending briefly to Woodroof and Rayon, and Griffin Dunne as the disbarred American Dr. Vass, now working in a Mexican clinic.
Hollywood loves matinee performers who suddenly begin playing against type to reveal their acting skills, which McConaughey has doggedly accomplished in his last several movies (Bernie [see my review in this volume], Killer Joe, Magic Mike, and Mud) and to which Leto has devoted most of his erratic cinema career. And in this film both are quite memorable and, despite their almost skeletal frames, both are still quite beautifully chiseled beings, without either of them being truly “great” actors. Leto, for example, was far better in Mr. Nobody, and it is clear that McConaughey, if he continues in such challenging roles, might develop into a remarkable artist.
Yet these criticisms are minor ones given the depth of both actors’ performances in this film. Vallée’s camera is obviously in love with its would-be cowboy, who suddenly discovering that he is HIV positive and has only 30 days to live, violently and resolutely reacts, proclaiming simultaneously that he is no faggot and he does not intend to die. Although the man cannot stand, his amazing stamina and pluck transform him almost into a Beckettian character who, although he cannot go on, will and must. Turned down from an AZT drug trial at the local Dallas hospital, Woodroof bribes a hospital janitor to obtain the drugs, which he swallows down like aspirin with swigs of liquor. The high dosages he takes nearly kill him, as he gradually comes to comprehend—particularly after a visit to a Mexican clinic, whose Dr. Vas explains that AZT is toxic, killing not only bad HIV cells, but all cells with which in comes in contact—that he must seek another, less toxic regimen of anti-viral drugs unavailable in the US. Somewhat cleverly, Woodroof takes on several different identities (that of a priest and a doctor) to smuggle the drugs in. But the FDA Administration is always on his trail, and many of his attempts, as he sees it, to save his own life, are foiled.
Sexually impotent from his disease and drugs, surviving simply from day to day, Woodroof, meanwhile loses the friendship of his equally homophobic buddies, and we see the palpable loneliness upon his face. In that condition, Woodroof’s character begins a transformation that is at the heart of his story, reading books and essays about the disease, checking up on the medicines being used to help patients in other countries, from the Netherlands and Mexico, to China and Japan. If this is perhaps a bit unbelievable (although based on a true story), it helps us to understand his sudden commitment to others. If his sudden social interactions begin as a mercenary attempt to simply get enough money to survive, as he establishes the “Dallas Buyers Club,” selling memberships for $400 a month during which he will provide each member a cache of “helpful” drugs, it gradually grows out of his loneliness and through his research, into a kind of social mission, aimed against the greed of drug companies and hospital executives such as Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare), who is obviously lining his pockets with drug company solicitations. Moreover, to reach a larger, gay and transgender audience, he takes on Rayon as a partner, before long, moving into connecting motel rooms in which they set up a well-run drug dispensary.
Without Woodroof even quite perceiving it, his homophobia begins to be worn down simply by his everyday encounters with homosexuals and, in particular, with the fragile yet street-tough Rayon. A true relationship between the two begins to evolve, she challenging his macho vision of himself by plastering pictures of herself upon the wall to which he has posted buxomly heterosexual women, and he demanding, when the two encounter an old buddy in a supermarket, that Rayon be properly greeted. Although, the cowboy is still all rough edges, and political incorrect by calling Rayon “he,” but his heart is suddenly in the right place. And at one magical moment, despite his recalcitrant bigotries, he hugs her out of what surely appears to be a protective love.
Rayon’s visit, while dressed in a male suit, to her intolerant father, reveals to us just how fragile the fantasy of his female self is, as he begs for money which might help keep the Dallas Buyers Club alive. Leto himself has described this moment in the film as his most vulnerable acting assignment, feeling, he admits, more comfortable in Rayon’s dresses that in her male attire, her long flowing hair tied up neatly into a small pony tail. This scene, moreover, spells the beginning of her end. While Woodroof is away on a buying rip, Rayon falls deeply ill, crying out in the horror of her condition, and is taken by her friend back to the hospital where she dies.
Her death and Woodroof’s violent reaction against the hospital director, finally draws Dr. Eve (Garner) out her protective shell, as she realizes the destructiveness she has been allowing through her patients’ AZT tests. Soon after, she is asked and refuses to resign.
We all know how it must end, as it did in so many parts of the country where such buyers’ clubs had sprung up. The FDA swooped down upon dying individuals as if they were vultures, refusing to allow any possible hope and respite these living-dead people might have clung to. Woodroof, now a survivor for several years, refused to give up, suing the governmental organization in a San Francisco court (the result from a Texas court would have been a foregone conclusion). The tortured judge renders the only verdict he can, it is against the law, unfortunately, to import or sell drugs not approved by the FDA, while he simultaneously berates the FDA for its assaults upon dying Americans. Woodroof was ultimately allowed to take his drugs, but not permitted to sell them. And his defeat is lovingly recognized by all his supporters, as an incomparable act of bravery.
In the last shot of the film, the cowboy returns to the back of a bull, shooting out of the pen with unimaginable grace, his thin frame flexibly moving against the jerks of the angry animal. Through just such survivalist tactics, Woodroof extended his life from 30 days to 7 1/2 years, surely a miracle of sorts. And so has McConaughey, by bravely taking on this role, extended his career, let us hope, by years and years.
Los Angeles, November 16, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position (December 2013).