Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Cinema File #295: "Dallas Buyers Club" Review

Thanks to modern advancements in medication, the last thirty years have seen the AIDs virus transformed from a post-industrial plague to a relatively manageable condition, and just as the science has evolved, so too has the cultural perception of the disease. In retrospect, it seems unrelatably horrifying to think back on how widespread the stigma surrounding AIDs once was, associated with a class of people consigned at the time to the fringes of society. Dallas Buyers Club attempts to capture a complicated slice of life centered around this period of uncertainty and prejudice through the true story of an unlikely advocate for tolerance, and while it can be said to be more a showcase for great performances than a great movie in its own right, those performances alone elevate it to being one of better movies of 2013.

Over the last few years, it would be hard not to come to the conclusion that Matthew McConaughey can do no wrong. Even when he shows up in a movie that isn't that great, his unique ability to embody pure charm and affability makes every role he takes the standout of whatever he's in. In light of that and his career choices of late, his take on homophobic drug smuggler Ron Woodrufff almost feels like a test of his ability to make us like a character just because he's playing them. When Woodruff finds himself with AIDs and still can't bring himself to find common cause with gay people, it would be understandable to dismiss his plight as karmic retribution, but McConaughey is just so damn good at making this character real and sympathetic that you can't help but root for him even with all his flaws.

And the best part is, the flaws don't magically disappear just because the formula of dramatic cinema demands it. This is a character that would seem to beg for a heavy handed redemption story where the once gruff and bigoted redneck learns the error of his ways and acknowledges how wrong he was in treating gay people like monsters, but for the most part, that never really happens. Yes, he's a little better by the end of the story than he was at the start, but only so much as he would have to be, and no more. He's still uncomfortable around gay people and still spends most of the movie basically exploiting them, even if he happens to do so in a nicer way than everyone else is exploiting them. His entire motivation is essentially selfish and this doesn't really change, which is both true to life and refreshing considering the inclination towards pat schmaltzy resolutions most movies like this have.

McConaughey famously lost 50 pounds to realistically portray the wasting body shape of an AIDs patient, and watching him work in this spindley new physicality is spellbinding. Seeing a man who so frequently appears on Sexiest Man Alive lists and is so prone to showing off a well built shirtless physique suddenly skeletal and weak is as shocking as it was no doubt intended to be, and that's even before the character starts hurling offensive slurs at the equally gaunt Jared Leto. These kinds of drastic actor transformations are sometimes unnecessary and pretentious, but in this case, it makes the film so much more engrossing as you can't help but be both repulsed and transfixed at the same time. Leto deserves credit as well for his own commitment, but then his pattern since Chapter 27 suggests he might be too eager to take on these kinds of physical challenges purely for the stunt.

Its hard to really get too far into the plot of Dallas Buyers Club, because beyond knowing the premise, there really isn't all that much to it. Its interesting only because the main character, and to a lesser extent the larger cast of characters around him are so much fun to watch. The consequences of the story are actually a bit muddled, as a last minute text scrawl suggests the big bad of the movie might have been right after all, as the drugs said to be poisonous to AIDs patients are still used today in lower doses while the ones used illegally by the titular club all seem to have been phased out. As with all character studies, its best not to think about the details too much and just enjoy the performances, which in this case are some of the best you'll see this year and deserving of all the awards they're almost certain to get. Ordinarily, for me at least, that isn't enough, but this time, I just couldn't say no to this lovable homophobe.
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