Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

In one of those shots you can feel and smell as well as see Ron Woodroof has farmyard quality sex with a rodeo groupie while keeping an eye on the bullriders he runs a book on. They leap and buck through the bars under the bleachers while he does his own out of sight. Then, fleeing the wrath of the rodeo betters he's just hustled he finds his cop brother and punches him to get arrested into the safety of the squad car and drives out of trouble. When he gets through the door he collapses as a shrill tinnitus ring erases all other sound.

Waking up in hospital the red blooded Texan is told he is less red blooded than whatever colour blood goes when the t-cell count drains. He is HIV positive. He has thirty days to live. His resistance to the idea of having the "gay plague" outpunches the one about him only having a month of life left. That goes for all of his friends as well. Ron is a man's man. Women are functional before they're human. His friends are entirely male, resemble overweight Steve Zahns with moustaches, and their rejection of him matches his own priorities: his imminent death is obscured.

The first part of this film is given to acceptance. He has to admit his condition and treat it and somewhere along the line admit his identification with people he lately reviled. In true Hollywood form this is amped up by a confronting example in the form of the transexual Rayon whom he meets in hospital. After a number of screenwriting seminar moments (Rayon beats the shirt off Ron at poker and massages Ron's severe leg cramp etc) the two begin a truce that we know will turn into a friendship before too long.

The second part of the film is given to the campaign for effective treatments available elsewhere in the world to be made available in the U.S. This is made necessary by the opposition from the bureacracy to Ron's quasi smuggling of treatments from Mexico and then overseas into the U.S. Having started the loophole club of the title he finds himself plagued by officialdom and is soon grandstanding at meetings and in courtrooms for the cure.

If I sound dismissive here it's only to get the obvious points out of the way and concentrate on the central drawcard of this movie which is the combined performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto as Ron and Rayon respectively.

McConaughey has spent the last swag of screen roles shedding the skin of a career of featherlight rom coms. I haven't yet seen Killer Joe but Mud and the HBO series True Detective provide very strong evidence that this shirtless wonder from the 90s and 00s has stepped into his craft. While any actor would happily sign up for the obnoxious monster that Ron is at the start knowing that his redemption is close at hand. McConaughey does this but restrains himself from the big reveal in the same way that we are trusted as an audience to observe the changes in his relationship with his circumstances. The theme in chief in getting this done is Ron's anger which goes from the initial explosions with collateral damage to delivery as streams of ice through a well-turned charm. Frail unto death, sick and pale, marred by crimson scabs, the Ron who stands up to the oafish departmental zealots is a weapon designed and developed in a personal laboratory. He is his defiance.

By contrast Jared Leto is all surrender. The cosmetic display his Rayon affects in his own (longer term) defiance fades before we are aware of it until his venous complexion covers him like a dark blue vine. From the flamboyant strut at the onset to his stark death on a hospital trolley his life's battle was never enough. Leto's weightloss is confronting but the pain of the attack on his resolve is clear as he eventually fades and falls into silence. The failure of the tough gravity beneath all that camp hurts more than the already painful moment of vulnerability in the scene with his father when he presents himself in the garb of the world that has rejected him (wearing it like a hairshirt) but it's the toughness that we keep. Considering this and the undersung Chapter 27 for which he larded up to play John Lennon's killer Mark David Chapman and gave us real torment behind the dead eyes and crippled voice, Jared Leto might well be written off as the pretty boy that could .... but he's worth a lot more attention.

The third in the principal triangle of performances here is Jennifer Garner who is written a lot less than the other two but warms the role up with enough genuineness to make it real but she is just too overshadowed. It's important to have her character there as a medical voice that is clearly not of the corporate-backed orthodoxy but she is written for this more than a person in the life of. That Garner raises this to a performance rather than a forgivable deliverer of lines is to her credit.

One issue that made me wince also had to do with casting. The FDA is represented by the same beefy Texan throughout and each time Ron comes up agin the lah Mr Clipboard appears as though he's Satan in a Christmas pantomime. And why is Ron's cop brother there every single time Ron tuggles with the boys in blue? This is Dallas, not Mayberry, there is more than one police station in the town. Now, both of these cases might have been forced by the budgetary bugbears plaguing this production and/or a perceived need for continuity representing the powers that be but set against the might of the central performances they look filled in rather than crafted. The scene in which it is important that Ron and brother meet in line of duty begins with a cop unknown to Ron. This begins very poignantly and leads to an equally affecting moment but those are pivoted on the miraculous appearence of Ron's brother in the squad car.

I'm going cut this movie some slack, though, as it did great battle against spare means to find a very natural voice for its crucial tale. Can't afford a long shoot? Do it inside a month. Cranes and tracks too costly? Get handheld down to an art so it isn't self-congratulatory. Can't pay a composer? Source a few minutes of deftly chosen (non-period) retro and use that ... now and then ... instead of some smothering Hans Zimmer overwrought string section to tell you what you should be feeling. Get it?  This film was forced to be lean 'n' mean and in doing so found plenty of room for appropriate emotion. If someone dies crushed at the end of a life of struggle just bloody show it and we'll do the emoting. That's why I prefer this to the similarly themed Philadelphia from the 90s despite that film's merits: we know it's sad and angering, show us why we should also feel kinship. Don't manipulate us with orchestras, leave us no room for anything but empathy. Then we're there. And so I was, welling up more than once and, oddly enough, happy to do so ... a proud witness to a callous diers blub.

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