I traverse my way outside of Chicagoland proper and into suburbia for the week
on work, I’ve felt a bit out of my element: limited access to phone and
internet, and a now close kinship to my Excel spreadsheets. Even with a stunted
means of retrieving news and media for the past week, the joyous rapture of the
Illinois Senate passing a bill permitting same-sex marriage was met with
palpable glee. Years of push-and-pull reform has now allowed gays and lesbians
the opportunity to wed in Illinois - the fifteenth state to do so. The struggle
for reform and the faceless few who pushed for it so vehemently saw their hard
work rewarded. Pushing for reform and
contending with what seems like an insurmountable struggle is at the core of Jean-Marc
Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club.
The carnally-inclined Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is first seen indisposed, satiating the needs of a couple of woman while snorting a line of coke. Ever the multitasker, Woodroof partakes in rodeo gambling and has a particular affinity for cheating his friends and pocketing their cash. Setting him up as a jackass, Jean-Marc Vallée relishes in the opportunity to revert Woodroof’s image. Following an electrical accident, Woodroof is hospitalized and is told of his condition: he has HIV. Woodroof’s homophobic and delusional response is to hire a couple of hookers for him and his friend (the undercurrent homoerotic undertone of Woodroof vacantly looking at his friend fucking a hooker is a nice bit of subversion that Vallée tinkers with). But advised that he may only have 30 days to live, Woodroof looks to educate himself on the subject, becoming something close to an expert as he absorbs every article and publication. This is Vallée’s finest contribution to the film, in that he captures the sense that his lead character knew nothing of his illness, yet slowly but surely puts together the pieces. It’s a bit of Fincher-esque filmmaking with his lead character gathering and synthesizing information to uncover his own personal mystery.
Dallas Buyers Club adheres to the usual biopic tropes, propelling the narrative forward in time when necessary. Vallée regularly deploys title cards to help the audience understand how far along Woodroof is in his treatment as he surpasses his 30-day life sentence. The screenplay written by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack is a surprisingly rich, if not messy, offering. Evenly keeled in its dramatic and comic elements, the duo offers some scathing criticism of public policies (taking the Food and Drug Administration to task) along with remarks on the commercialization of medicine (offering a unique companion piece to Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects). It also offers a welcomed condensed perspective of something like David France’s AIDS documentary How to Survive a Plague. Exhaustive (and exhausting), France’s film essentially offered the macro perspective to Vallée’s micro.
The endless praise afforded to McConaughey and Jared Leto (as Woodroof’s transsexual business partner) justifies Dallas Buyers Club as being largely an actors’ showcase. The two intercut much of what could be heavy melodrama with a spontaneity that keeps the material fresh. The territory that the two are working from has been charted, and it’s perhaps Dallas Buyers Club’s biggest fault - it’s adheres to a structural formula that often times feels too convenient. But the two approach the material with a sense of sincerity as McConaughey provides the grit, Leto the relief, and vice versa.
Points can be made against Dallas Buyer Club sanctifying a straight man as the savior of gay culture, but honestly, that completely undercuts notions a heterosexual contending with what’s primarily seen as a “gay disease”. Borten and Wallack provide the material for Woodroof’s character study, Vallée serves the material in a nondescript but effective manner, and McConaughey just about steals the film as his own. Good intentions can go a long way, even if it doesn't take you all the way.