Mark Reviews Movies

Dallas Buyers Club


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O'Hare, Michael O'Neill, Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin

MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 11/1/13 (limited); 11/8/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 8, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club follows the life of a man diagnosed with HIV as he seems ready to go through the stages of Kübler-Ross model until he gets stuck at the bargaining stage. "Gets stuck," though, isn't quite the right way to put it. He's steadfast in his decision to stick to bargaining. Depression and acceptance are out of the question. There's no way this man, who spent years living fast and loose with alcohol and drugs and sex, is going to sit around feeling sorry for himself. In the one moment in which he's just about to reach that point as he touches a pistol that could end it all, his sobs turn into a pained but defiant laugh.

If he comes to accept his fate, the film never shows it. That's not, to use a term he employs quite often to show as much affection for a person as he's willing to publicly admit to, his style.

The story, based on a true one, is set in the 1980s, when the term HIV was always followed up with the descriptive phrase, "the virus that causes AIDS," and AIDS itself was a death sentence (Now consider the stunning leap in medicine in less than 30 years after the point where the story of the film begins). People are just starting to consider the human toll of the disease with the revelation that actor Rock Hudson has it. The front page of the local newspaper announces that revelation near the start of the film in the summer of 1985, and Ron Woodroof (an unrecognizably emaciated Matthew McConaughey) can only mourn the lost opportunities of bedding this or that actress with the accompanying inference of the star's sexuality. His friends are less kind and far more judgmental.

Understanding of the causes and effects of the disease was hindered by longstanding prejudices. Ron is not immune from such prejudices, neither in terms of possessing them himself nor in being the target of them. He doesn't just join in with his buddies in making hateful comments about Hudson to fit in with group; he actually believes them. Later, he's wrongly the target of similar judgments.

As for treatment for the disease, it's practically nonexistent, apart from making the awful transition from a short and torturous life, full of an assortment of conditions that result from the virus killing off one's immune system, to death as "comfortable" as possible. Ron is willing to live with the pain because at least it's living, which, we can almost hear him saying in that Texas twang, is better than the alternative.

He lives and breathes the kind of down-home lifestyle that accompanies that accent. He works at a rodeo, where he makes bets and runs off with the money when he loses, and as an electrician on oil rigs, where an accident lands him in the hospital. He's been coughing something fierce as of late—self-medicating himself with whiskey and cocaine—and even passes out on the floor of his trailer home. None of this brought him to see a doctor, which points to a level of stubbornness that will ultimately add several years to his life and to the lives of a good number of other people.

The doctors (Jennifer Garner plays the sympathetic one restricted by the hospital's rules; Denis O'Hare plays the one who's more interested in receiving the benefits of pharmaceutical companies than helping his patients) walk in to the examination room wearing masks. It doesn't click with Ron then. When they tell him he has HIV, he's angry because he assumes they're saying something about him that isn't true. When they tell him he has 30 days to live, he's in full-on denial mode, and the screenplay by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack seems ready to document the quick, inevitable death of a man who decides to drink away his remaining days.

He doesn't, though, because he hears about a test for a drug that might cure him or at least delay his death. He pays a janitor to leave some of the pills (which he downs with a beer followed by a cocaine chaser) in the garbage, and the rest of the film follows similarly clever ways of questionable legality in which he obtains drugs that the Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved but that, according to a formerly licensed doctor (Griffin Dunne) who runs a clinic in Mexico, could help people. It works for Ron.

There are two fights going on here. The first is between Ron, who eventually starts a membership-based drug club—to avoid directly selling the non-approved drugs—in a dingy Dallas motel (Director Jean-Marc Vallée and cinematographer Yves Bélanger give the entire film a pallid air), and an FDA (Michael O'Neill plays an official to represent the entire agency) that has put its bureaucratic weight behind one drug, which happens to be a cash cow for the company that manufactures it and might be causing more harm than good. We can see the logic of the FDA's plan, which, according to the less-sympathetic doctor, needs solid data on whether or not the drug is successful, but there's a tunnel vision to their good intentions. If the drugs Ron is supplying work, they simply don't want to hear it.

The second battle, between Ron's old way of thinking and his evolution toward a new outlook toward a group of people whom he once either feared or reviled, is more obvious, but McConaughey's performance, which shifts from the cool confidence of a used-car salesman to the resilience of a man who realizes his fight is bigger than himself (Jared Leto plays Ron's transgender business partner who slowly breaks down the man's defenses), genuinely makes it feel like a struggle of great import. It's a move to empathy that Dallas Buyers Club not only portrays in its protagonist but also conveys to us.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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