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Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée

Premise: Based on a true story. Set in the mid-1980s, a blue collar worker (Matthew McConaughey) discovers that he has contracted HIV. Facing immanent death and unable to get treatment, he networks with non-American medical suppliers to import and distribute unapproved medication.

What Works: There is a small but distinguished field of AIDS dramas. Many of these films, such as And the Band Played On and Philadelphia, deal with the intersection of law, public health, and human suffering. Dallas Buyers Club fits into that niche and it is as good, if not better, than any other picture in the field. But within that niche, Dallas Buyers Club is unique in that it is a film about characters on the low rung of the social ladder. Rather than examining the history of AIDS in a very sterile environment like a laboratory or a court room, this film literally takes the action into the streets, telling a gritty story of people coping with the realities of the disease. That gives the drama of this movie immediate stakes and a strong sense of verisimilitude. Stories about AIDS always have an overt political subtext; the understanding of the disease and its treatment are inextricably linked to social and political forces. That ends up being one of Dallas Buyers Club’s most interesting aspects and the filmmakers are able to use the political dimensions of AIDS to make this a compelling and subversive picture. The film tells the true story of Ron Woodroof, a heterosexual electrician with an aptitude for hustling. When Woodroof is diagnosed with HIV he discovers alternative treatments available in other countries but forbidden in the American marketplace because of, as the film depicts it, the Food and Drug Administration’s incompetent and corrupt practices.  Woodroof sets up a black market, offering the medication through a legal loophole. That makes Dallas Buyers Club a going-into-business movie and in many respects it is a conservative story about an entrepreneur seizing an opportunity and pushing back against government regulation. That mission gradually evolves as the homophobic Woodroof gradually comes to recognize the humanity in other people and his capitalist motivations give way to a more altruistic consciousness. The way the filmmakers merge what would generally be a conservative story with a cause that would generally be labeled as liberal results in a movie that confounds the conventional political framework. That same kind of subversive quality is present in the two lead roles. Woodroof is played by Matthew McConaughey and the actor is terrific in the role, with his usual machismo offset by a fragile vulnerability. Making an equally strong impression is Jared Leto as Woodroof’s transgender business partner. The role could quite easily become a gay stereotype but Leto’s performance is transcendent and gets at the humanity of his character.

What Doesn’t: There is a relevant criticism of Dallas Buyers Club that is based around the fact that the filmmakers frame a story about the history of AIDS around a heterosexual male character. Although the disease impacted people of all sexual orientations, it was the gay community that took the brunt of the impact in terms of infections but also in terms of social apathy and demonization. It is arguable that by framing a story about AIDS around a straight character, the filmmakers coopt the history of AIDS and thereby obfuscate the history of gay rights in the late 20th Century. There is a validity to this criticism but the picture should not be written off because of it. Part of what works about Dallas Buyers Club is its story of a homophobic character who finds himself among those he despises and gradually overcomes his phobia and recognizes shared human dignity. This is a fantastic story and the filmmakers execute it well. The ideological criticisms of Dallas Buyers Club really speak to the way the legacy of AIDS has been avoided by both mainstream and independent filmmakers and this picture should not be scapegoated for the failings of cinema at large. In the very least, Dallas Buyers Club presents the audience with a story about the history of AIDS and does so with a great deal of intelligence and humanity and that is a step in the right direction.

Bottom Line: Dallas Buyers Club is a terrific picture not just as an AIDS drama but in terms of dramatic moviemaking. The performances by McConaughey and Leto are some of the best of both actors’ careers and the film is a compelling and involving story.

Episode: #468 (December 8, 2013)