Apologies and what not for lack of blogging as of late, but as usual, some things have to take priority (namely dissertation). Now while I can put off another essay for a short while, I’ll make sure to catch up on my blogging, namely with my review for Dallas Buyers Club, one of the nine Best Picture nominees this year for the Oscar this coming Sunday. With Dallas Buyers Club set to dominate both the actor and supporting actor categories, my attention was of course drawn to the performances of the film, yet as the picture unfolded my judgement moved on from the quite obviously brilliant performances to the actual film itself. As a result, I came to view Jean-Marc Vallee’s film as one that while adequate is not entirely worthy of the performances within it.
Starting in Dallas 1985, the film tells the story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), a red neck electrician, who burns the candle at both ends with excessive drug taking, alcohol abuse, and unprotected sex with numerous results. As a result of his lifestyle, Woodruff is diagnosed with AIDS and is given 30 days to live. Determined to prove the Doctor’s wrong and continue on living, Ron begins to hustle America’s Drugs administration to ship in unapproved drugs which help ease the symptoms and aggressive effects of the disease. After seeing how desperate sufferers of the disease are, Woodruff begins to capitalize on the need for these drugs and sets up the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ in which AIDS sufferers pay for a membership and receive unsanctioned treatment. Unwittingly, he soon begins to lead to charge against America’s drug regulations, as well as aiming to expose the damaging effects of the DEA-approved AZT.
The story of Dallas Buyers Club asks us to be aligned with a rather ugly human being; a homophobic, angry, filthy individual. It is not uncommon for films to align the spectator with unlikeable characters, heck some of the greatest films of all time do such a thing, but there’s something a bit uncomfortable in regards to Woodruff. He does become a much more open minded individual as the film progresses, but the film seems to have made drama out of an aspect of the man’s life that didn’t need to be mined. The homophobia exhibited by his character seems a lazy way to show the change in the character’s nature. The real Ron Woodruff displayed a homophobic attitude, but apparently he did also partake in homosexual acts before contracting AIDS, an aspect which is not explored in the film and surely would have led to a more complex portrayal of masculinity for McConaughey to wrestle with. Furthermore, the film avoids Woodruff’s relationship with his sister and daughter in the favour of a fictional relationship with Jennifer Garner’s nurse. While that sub-plot sees Garner the best she has been in quite sometime, it leaves one to question why Woodruff’s real-life relationships were not mined for dramatic potential, surely they would have given more meat to the bones of the character study that the film is wishing to portray?
Aside from these questionable creative decisions, the film is somewhat lacking in a distinctive visual identity and sophisticated film-making techniques. The style of the film is very raw and allows the drama of the story to take focus, but is un-involving all the same. Villee conveys a strong sense of urban and rural environments and carries enough distinction within these environments to create a certain mood for each locale, but it is all very by-the-numbers. The editing too seems very amateurish, leading one to question exactly how this film has gained a Best Editing nomination when the likes of Rush are left in the dark. The montages are awkwardly paced and reek of low level competence, made more out of necessity then actual care for the information and style that a well constructed montage can deliver and add to a film.
All of this would put the film in to seriously average territory if it wasn’t for the strength of the performers telling the story, so thank God that his film offers some of the best performances (particularly male) of recent memory. Villee’s style seems to be mindful of the fact that he is showcasing performances that do not need the whistles and bells of a stylised aesthetic, instead he allows the performers to occupy the screen and power the film’s personality. The aforementioned Garner is in some ways the film’s soul, as her conflicted Doctor warms to the plight and cause that Woodruff stands for. Jared Leto turns in a performance of captivating grace and skill as transgender AIDS sufferer Rayon. It is a performance thoroughly deserving of the accolades that it has so far received, and I would be none too surprised if he walks away with the Oscar on Sunday.
Now to the big man himself. McConaughey has had such a remarkable career turn in recent years, and an Oscar would be the icing on the cake. His performance here is one that is yet again deserving of all the praise that has been laid upon it. Through a startlingly physical transformation and sly character quirks, McConaughey manages to completely hide behind the persona of Woodruff with chameleon like skill, presenting a character, not just an Oscar-baiting performance which so many winners in the past have been guilty of. While I still think that Chiwetel Ejiofor is the strongest performance amongst the Best Actor nominees, I would have no qualms with McConaughey winning on the night. It would still be thoroughly deserved as not only a reward for a single performance, but as a worthy acknowledgment of the incredible transformation of his star persona that has come to colour his career choices as of late.
Dallas Buyers Club is a testament to the power and skill of a group of excellent actors to raise material to a whole different level. While the stylistic choices and script may leave you wanting, the magnetic energy of McConaughey and Leto in particular ensure that your eyes never leave the screen. They power the film with such wattage that you almost forget the somewhat lazy execution of the material. The McConaissance continues, and it is only getting more and more exciting!
4/5- Five-star performances housed in a three-star movie, so lets average out at four. A frustratingly adequate approach to style is compensated by the showcasing of two exceptional performances from McConaughey and Leto, making Dallas Buyers Club a worthwhile experience.