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Welcome to my film blog. I strive for a synthesis of good/bad and theoretical criticism.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Compassion or Corruption?

A Review of Dallas Buyers Club

By Daniel Carstens

“People are dying.  And y’all are up there afraid that we’re gonna find an alternative without you.  You see, the pharma companies pay the FDA to push their product.”  This rant by Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is the overt message of Dallas Buyers Club.  For those (almost everyone) who are completely unfamiliar with the film, Woodroof is a Texas electrician who enjoys drugs and sex, and, in 1985, learns that he has HIV.  As a man who loves bull riding and beer, he is in disbelief that he, a straight man, has the “Rock Hudson” disease.  Given only 30 more days to live, he desperately seeks medical treatments, and obtains AZT, a new drug that is being studied.  His search for the drug brings him to Mexico, where a doctor alerts him to the dangers of AZT.  The doctor gives him new drugs that are unapproved by the FDA.  Ron begins a sort of business, smuggling and selling the drugs to AIDS victims, assisted by his link with the gay community, Rayon (Jared Leto).  Despite the dangers of AZT and the proven success of Ron’s drugs, the FDA constantly battles to shut him down.  This brings us to the rant, which is the film’s explicit message, perhaps too obviously shouted by Ron.

Yes, Dallas Buyers Club is about governmental corruption and corporate greed taking precedence over the health and livelihood of people with a terminal illness.  However, much more interesting is the film’s underlying message about homosexuality.  Set in the infancy of the AIDS epidemic, the film naturally tackles Reagan-era homophobia.  Upon discovery of his illness, Ron exerts a slew of gay slurs that would offend Phil Robertson.  Ron’s friends ridicule him, assuming he has been sleeping with men, and are even squeamish sitting near him.  One powerful scene features Ron in a physical altercation with a former friend.  Ron overpowers the man and forces him to shake hands with Rayon.  The man quivers with fear for his safety.  Such was many people’s perception of homosexuality and AIDS in the mid-80’s.  Recall the scene in Philadelphia (1993) where Miller (Denzel Washington) visits his doctor to see if he could have contracted AIDS from shaking Beckett’s (Tom Hanks) hand.

Many “cross-over” films, that is, mainstream films which discuss homosexual issues, deal with homophobia.  Philadelphia centers around the issue, as do more recent films, such as Milk (2008).  In Dallas Buyers Club, however, homophobia is a relatively minor issue.  Ron overcomes his homophobia early, and his friends are not prominent after the film’s opening half-hour.  The government and pharmaceutical companies are not portrayed as homophobic at all.  The film could easily center around lymphoma patients.  The greedy do not discriminate.  They love anyone who can make them vast sums of money.

Dallas Buyers Club differs from most cross-over films in that it does not attempt to make people embrace homosexuality.  Philadelphia, Milk, Brokeback Mountain (2005), and many others portray homosexuality as normal, and at times attack those who do not view it as such.  In Dallas Buyers Club, Rayon, the major homosexual character in the film, is far from normal.  He is a transvestite and a heavy drug user.  The film does not condemn Rayon, however.  At first, Ron only uses Rayon as a means to make money.  As the film progresses, Ron genuinely empathizes with Rayon and other gays, not because of their homosexuality, but their disease that those in power refuse to make less excruciating.  Dallas Buyers Club does not force anyone to embrace homosexuality, but urges us to love everyone and help those who need it, even if we disagree with their lifestyle.  

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won Golden Globes for their performances in Dallas Buyers Club, and both are expected to take home the Oscars as well.  This presents the perfect opportunity to discuss the difference between a great performance and a great character.  John Huston once said, in regards to acting: “It’s a cinch, and they pay you damn near as much as you make directing.”  While Huston was certainly downplaying the difficulty of acting, he had a point.  The effect of an acting performance has much more to do with the writer and director than with the actor.  We see this constantly.  Jennifer Lawrence will not win an Oscar for The Hunger Games, but she rakes in awards for every David O. Russell film she appears in.  The characters and the director often win awards for the actors.  (See my American Hustle review for more on that subject)

Of course, it takes a great performance to bring out the best in a great character, but some characters require less acting prowess.  Lawrence’s mentally unstable characters with quick, snappy dialogue are exactly what the Academy (and the public) loves.  In Dallas Buyers Club, Rayon the character will win Leto awards.  Leto immerses himself in the character and gives an excellent performance, but undoubtedly many actors would have brought the charismatic and tragic character to life in a similar, equally powerful manner.  Personally, I wonder why a gay actor was not used for the character (which is common in cross-over films and a lengthy discussion on its own).  Regardless, compare Leto’s performance with that of Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street.  Hill breathes power and madness into the character that shocked me, and probably everyone else, who has never taken him seriously as an actor.

Like Rayon, Ron is a great character, but Matthew McConaughey delivers a wonderful performance that is unassisted by makeup and accent (though he does deliver a fantastic Texas timbre).  He superbly immerses himself in the character, makes us forget Matthew McConaughey entirely, and forces us to feel Ron’s pain and sorrow, as well as his joy and anger.  McConaughey has earned his accolades for himself, while Leto, great as he is in the film, is riding the coattails of his character.  

Dallas Buyers Club is a beautiful film, albeit often in a dark, depressing, and angry fashion.  McConaughey delivers the performance of his life.  Jennifer Garner unfortunately sticks out like a sore thumb.  This poor casting choice is the only major weakness of the film, one that presents an unforceful message about homosexuality within a critique of governmental corruption and corporate greed, coupled with a powerful message of compassion.

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