Dallas Buyers Club Review: Long Live the McConaissance

Bolstered by powerful performances, Dallas Buyers Club presents a real-life tale of survival that is truly heroic.

Hollywood loves a true story. It’s not difficult to see why; with the magic of moviemaking, it’s easy to get audiences to marvel at an extraordinary tale, and then take the thrill a step further by reminding them that these things actually happened.

This year, we’ve been privy to a plethora of films that feature fictionalized accounts of real events. Some were meditations on a specific era, as with The Butler and American Hustle. Others focused on specific people, such as 12 Years A SlaveSaving Mr. Banks, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Even this summer’s horror hit The Conjuring has some basis in reality. The draw of films like these is the idea that everyday life can sometimes be just as exciting as any major blockbuster. There are real heroes out there, and they too deserve their day in the sun.

Dallas Buyers Club, in all its choppy, gritty glory, doesn’t attempt to glamorize the struggles of its protagonist Ron Woodroof. Director Jean-Marc Vallée takes a barebones approach to the material, effectively sucking us into the fear and confusion in the early days of the 80s AIDS epidemic. Ron, a racist, homophobic, redneck rebel rouser, hardly comes across as someone worth rooting for. Yet, his decision to battle against the FDA and big pharmaceutical companies in finding a treatment for his disease is nothing short of inspiring.  His motivation derives purely from his unbreakable will to live, and his determination is exhilarating.

Of course, a film as austere as this one can only really succeed if it’s highlighted by strong performances. Matthew McConaughey may seem like an odd choice for this particular type of lead role, but he’s actually the perfect man to carry the narrative on his shoulders. The actor has been working on somewhat of a career rebirth over the past few years, starting with his charismatic turn in 2011’s The Lincoln Laywer, and culminating in striking performances in films like Killer JoeMud, and Bernie.  Even his extended cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street is miles away from the trite romantic comedies he used to be known for.

With Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey may have finally put the final nail in the coffin of his former films. His performance is literally transformative. With his skeletal features and gruff magnetism, he plays Ron as a rebel with a noble cause. The evolution of his character over the course of the film succeeds because he never loses his rough-and-tumble attitude. Ron doesn’t trades in his signature snark for true compassion, but he does become more open-minded of the people around him, and more educated about his predicament. It’s no wonder McConaughey is already receiving Oscar buzz. This is easily his most masterful work to date.

Though greatly impressive, McConaughey’s performance isn’t the only one worth mentioning. Jennifer Garner, another actress who has long been pigeonholed into the rom-com genre, takes on what could be her meatiest role since Alias. As Dr. Eve Saks, she displays an understated compassion for Ron and his fellow AIDS recipients that’s incredibly endearing. While Garner does seem to be playing the part of the love interest, her character also takes us inside the complexities of the medical system as they try to treat patients and fight off pressure from corporate sponsors.

The real standout of the supporting players, however, is Jared Leto’s Rayon. As a drug-addicted drag queen, the actor and Thirty Seconds to Mars frontman is nearly unrecognizable. Rayon is flamboyant and headstrong, but his kindness is really what makes him such a lovable character. After partnering with Ron to sell AIDS patients alternative medicine, the two strike up an unlikely friendship. The development of their relationship is both heartwarming and realistically subtle. I certainly hope Leto receives a decent amount of awards recognition as well, because he truly deserves it.

Still, the film is not without its share of flaws. I’m sympathetic towards budgetary constraints, but the green screens of the various countries Ron travels to were more than a little obvious and temporarily took me out of the world of the film. Additionally, for all the opposition Ron faces in his mission to provide a cure, the ending feels a little underwhelming. While the film certainly has a duty to honor the real-life events it’s based on, I feel that it could have concluded in a more emotionally satisfying fashion.

That being said, these missteps do little to bog down this fearless story of endurance. Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t conduct itself as some grand tale of valor, and yet it’s hard not to leave the theater without feeling uplifted. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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