Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Dallas Buyers Club

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee

Produced by: Robbie Brenner
Nathan Ross
Rachel Rothman

Screenplay by: Craig Borten
Melisa Wallack

Starring: Matthew McConaughey
Jennifer Garner
Jared Leto

Cinematography by: Yves Belanger

Editing by: Martin Pensa
John Mac McMurphy

Studio(s): Truth Entertainment
Voltage Pictures

Distributed by: Focus Features

Release date(s): November 22, 2013 (United States)
February 7, 2014 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 116 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $5 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $20, 528, 954

Alrighty there, it took a wee bit there to get out my review for A Hijacking, frankly because I had a wee weekend to myself, catching up with my friends, watching NJPW's 2014 FantasticaMania and WWE's 2014 Royal Rumble at The Fly and finishing two books in the process (Live And Let Die, The Commitments). So yeah, while I've seen some movies, I haven't been as mad about seeing them as I should have been, so for all the latest, greatest and belated film reviews, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is Dallas Buyers Club, which at the time of this review's publication is a major awards contender. This is kind-of being seen as the tip of the iceberg regarding the reconnaissance of Matthew McConaughey, which got started with 2011's The Lincoln Lawyer, but really got kicked into full motion with his playing the title role in William Friedkin's Killer Joe, and has since seen turns in Magic Mike, Mud, The Wolf Of Wall Street (another of the nine Best Picture nominees at this year's Oscars) and an upcoming part as the lead in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Aside from the BAFTAs, from which Dallas Buyers Club is noticeably absent, McConaughey has been racking up the awards, and while I still feel there's a shot at Bruce Dern picking up the gong his work in Nebraska, chances are by the time he's in Nolan's latest he'll be billed as 'Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey.' So, plot synopsis here: it's 1985 in Dallas, Texas and Ron Woodruff (McConaughey), an electrician by trade and rodeo cowboy by pleasure with homophobic views suffers a work-related injury and is diagnosed as HIV positive and given thirty days to live. Despite finding himself ostracised by his friends and family as a result of his diagnosis, he finds from Dr. Eve Sacks (Jennifer Garner) that there is a drug being tested called AZT which is the only legally approved drug by the FDA for AIDS patients. After bribing a hospital employee for the drug, he finds his health declining and winds up in hospital with Rayon (Jared Leto), an AIDS positive transgender woman. He drives to a hospital to get more AZT, and Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne) turns him off it, claiming it to be a dangerous drug, and from there, Woodruff begins to smuggle drugs for his own use and with Rayon's extensive list of contacts eventually opens up his own 'buyers club,' charging a fee per month in exchange for free medication. That's enough on the synopsis, I needed to establish the premise but not tell the whole damn movie, which I've succeeded in at least...

To start with the good regarding Dallas Buyers Club, I must say that the central performance by Matthew McConaughey is frankly mesmerising. When I look back over the years at great performances, I think not just of those from films I reviewed, such as Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler or Carice Van Houten, but the likes of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull or Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, and what links all of those performances is the fact that I never thought of them as an actor playing a character, but simply a character. McConaughey's performance as Ron Woodruff is of that very same vein. It's an elaborate and meticulous part of details: not only does McConaughey look horribly gaunt and weak, but he still carries Woodruff with strength, conveying such swagger, confidence and determination. Also, not just physically, but in terms of the way he uses his voice, delivering his lines with a note-perfect diction, applying his Texan accent to give the character a Dallas drawl. You never buy this part as anything less than wholly legitimate: he's charming, insulting, loathsome, sympathetic and inspiring, often at the same time, and the complex brilliance of this character is on display thanks to McConaughey. Also on the acting plane, there are two great supporting performances from Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto. Although hers is the least 'showy' performance, if you will, she still does a splendid job of depicting the conflict that her character has, the conviction with which she is able to prescribe medication she knows doesn't work and disavow the practices of the Dallas Buyers Club highlights the hypocrisy of the medical organisations (FDA, etc.) and their legal wranglings. Furthermore, she's not just a cypher, and is someone who is inflected with real grace and a sense of justice, and Garner is not afraid to show us the rut that her character is in. Jared Leto's performance as the transgender Rayon is certainly the most showy, but that does not take away from Leto's accomplishment. The sass and quick wit of Rayon is the perfect foil for McConaughey's Woodruff, with Leto more than able to stand up to McConaughey, and this leads to some genuinely amusing exchanges. Leto also plays a brilliant balancing act, in that he captures the androgyny that can come with transgender women, but refuses to let it degrade into a camp comic figure or creepy caricature. Leto's Rayon is a sweet and very loveable rogue. Speaking of dialogue, I'd like to address the script, which did have some praiseworthy aspects. Of course, the dialogue is terrific, and as I mentioned, there are some splendid exchanges between Ron and Rayon, things like him having a gun by hand and telling Rayon he'll "give you the sex change you been looking for" and "God sure was dressin' the wrong doll when he blessed you with a set of balls" are brilliant pieces of dialogue. The interplay between these characters was a pleasure to behold. Also, it nails down the little details in the dialogue, their construction making it believable that Woodruff, who for all intents and purposes is a relatively uncultivated hick, could become through his own willpower a learned man on matters such as the treatment of his condition. Another that impressed me about the film was the fact that from what I could tell, the only music in the film (aside from sound effects when Ron feels sick) was part of the film's diegesis. Stylistically, it's largely devoid of gimmicks like credits, voice-overs and what have you, this being to the film's benefit, and the absence of a score lets us see the story unfold in a way that ensures it isn't a sentimental, popcorn 'issues' movie: it simply, but not without flavour, tells it as it is. Director Jean-Marc Vallee should be applauded not only for this, but for giving the film such a plain, no bull-bleep! attitude towards the film's LGBT themes. I make no bones about the fact that I am a strong supporter of LGBT rights, but I make a point of remaining objective about it when looking at art. While I am no fan of the gay scare bro humour that pervades many comedies (and thus, society), equally I do not like the patronising tone of people telling me XYZ, "isn't it wonderful how open-minded we are:" no, people are people, as the Mode would say. Of course this is subjective, but Vallee wisely maintains an artist's objectivity and lets the audience make up their own mind.

Now, as you can tell, I was very much into Dallas Buyers Club and frankly thought it was a really fine piece of work. However (the big however), I do have to say I have one reservation about the movie that, while I will admit to it being great, denies it from being up there with the very best of them. I say reservation because it's not exactly a fault, but the fact of the matter is is that Dallas Buyers Club, for all that's good about it, is a film we have seen in many different guises before. Thinking about it there, the first thing that came to my head was Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru, in which Watanabe, a long-serving bureaucrat finds out he has stomach cancer, and given a year's life-expectancy, decides, as the title translates, 'to live.' Before then I'm sure there were other similar pictures, but in the sixty years since then there have been countless variations on the same theme, so that, while Dallas Buyers Club was one of the more engaging ones, it's still part of the same overarching vein and isn't quite distinctive enough to be among the very best.

Despite the fact that is in many ways another variation of the well-trod theme of 'dying person learns to start living,' I still found Dallas Buyers Club to be a merit-worthy film. It has an extraordinary lead performance from Matthew McConaughey, backed up by two fine supporting parts from Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto. Also, while I did find the film's script/story to be conventional to a certain extent, the dialogue was fresh and invigorating, with some really splendid interplay going on between McConaughey and Leto. The diegesis and stylistic atmosphere of the film sees everything laid bare, presented as a raw representation of a story that does not batter us over the head as to how we should be feeling, something for which director Jean-Marc Vallee should be applauded. It's a pure, unadulterated movie that lets us make our own judgement calls regarding the characters and their story, whilst doing into in an altogether engaging and entertaining fashion. 

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.6/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Stuffy (my nose is, anyway.)

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