Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review: "Dallas Buyers Club" is an Engrossing Portrait of the AIDS Epidemic and the Power of One Man

Matthew McConaughey
One of the biggest surprises in the Oscar race this year is just how successful a threat that director Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club has become. In a year where conversation has been heavy around 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle, it is exciting to see a film that had limited appeal sweeping up wins from groups such as the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild (S.A.G.) and ending up with a Best Picture nod as well as five others. Then again, one of the biggest underdogs of this year's ceremony had an uphill battle and managed to turn in an impressively audacious look at AIDS and the vaccinations in 1980's America. It may not be the best nominee, but it does make itself worthy of mention.

The real power of the film comes from Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof: a Texas bull rider who fancies the ladies and has a soft spot for debauchery. He lives up to the typical code of southern masculinity with his homosexual-fearing demeanor and refuses to admit that he is sick despite passing out at varying points. It is only on a trip to Mexico that he has a revelation and discovers an alternative cure for the HIV treatment AZT. In a move of nobility or possibly even greed, he decides to smuggle in vitamins with the help of an unlikely partner: transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto). Much to the Food and Drug Administration's (F.D.A.) disapproval, he becomes a defiant voice for better treatment of AIDS.

The story itself isn't the biggest reason to enjoy the film. It is largely thanks to Matthew McConaughey, who has been on a winning streak since Magic Mike last year. He loses vanity for the frail physique of a dying man with too much of an ego. He ranges from charming to offensive while often being comedic and sympathetic. Even when the story lags and feels unfocused, Woodroof's confident defiance plays heroically alongside Rayon. Jared Leto is also enjoyable as Rayon, who is more nuanced and subtle in performance. His execution plays for tenderness and vulnerability and makes the two main performers one of the year's oddest duos.

It helps that the film itself feels like an important commentary not just on AIDS, but also on prescription drugs. While Woodroof is at the center of the story, Eve (Jennifer Garner) serves as the entry way to meetings of drug companies that question the effectiveness of their products. It manages to portray each issue with some clarity and understanding, though with a clear bias for the underdog hero.  By the end, the story doesn't feel so much resolved as it feels like it gave purpose to a man who started off the film having sex in a small pen at the rodeo. He suddenly became relevant by wanting change and becoming the driving force. It is in some ways a hopeful story and one with plenty of humor. 

Dallas Buyers Club is oftentimes meandering in pacing. There are points when the subject matter becomes a little redundant. However, the weight of the lead performances make this a rather impacting film that brings to light an issue in an accessible manner. It is likely that without the Oscar nominations that this film would go ignored by the general public, even if McConaughey won Best Actor. Now it stands a chance to withstand time. It may not paint its protagonist as a perfect man, but it does suggest that anyone willing to do good just has to try. It is an exploration of acceptance of gays in America as well as overcoming phobias and noticing the flaws of the drug administration. Its themes are important and outweigh the more flawed elements of the picture.

Jared Leto
When Oscar nominations were announced, I was predicting that Dallas Buyers Club would get the acting nominations and little else. However, when it racked up six total, I began to wonder what made this particular film so special. As someone who has rooted on the resurgence of Matthew McConaughey and predicted as far back as Magic Mike that this film would get him nominated, I am not so much surprised by how effective his performance was, but glad that it was rather great. He commanded the screen and had it not been for Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street this same year, his weight loss would more shocking. As it stands, the shirtless, abs obsessed actor is unrecognizable and it helps to make his performance feel more real. There are moments when he cried for compassion and it felt sincere. If anything, McConaughey already has lined up one of the most anticipated acceptance speeches of the year. Just check out his S.A.G. win earlier this month.

I am not so keen on Jared Leto being a front runner however. While he turned in an admirable performance that was nice juxtaposition to McConaughey's swagger, it does feel too nuanced and not particularly showy. I do feel like that is a strong component to McConaughey's success at the moment in terms of beating his competitors, notably personal favorite Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Leto, on the other hand, feels like he is winning awards based on the bravery of his role and not necessarily the passion. That isn't to say that he is bad, but more to note that in terms of the Best Supporting Actor nominees, his wins over Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) feel strange simply because Fassbender was dynamic, haunting, and memorable. Leto was complex and his nomination is well deserved, but it does feel strange for him to get nominated.

I do admire that this got a Best Picture nomination simply because it does feel like an important topic film. Its execution is solid, and while the Best Editing nomination makes no sense, it is a compelling story of a stranger, scarier time in America for gays. The only way was to survive and find ways to get better. That alone justifies the nomination and maybe even the Best Original Screenplay nod as well. I doubt that it will win any of these fields, but the very basis that it received a wider exposure is alone a triumph. It is a memorable ride that thankfully didn't get beaten by more universal fare like Saving Mr. Banks or The Butler. It at least shows the Academy's ability to recognize important subjects when it wants to.

Let us dive into both acting nominations. McConaughey is part of a class of nominees that may have received bias simply by losing weight (see: Anne Hathaway - Best Supporting Actress, Les Miserables or Christian Bale - Best Supporting Actor, The Fighter). He would even follow an even smaller class of nominees that lost weight to depict HIV patients (see: Tom Hanks - Best Actor, Philadelphia). In fact, it feels like a lot of his appeal comes from the showiness of it all. Maybe it is just that he is in a renaissance period, but it is much deserved. It is conflicting however against Ejiofor, who is equally engaging yet more insular with his performance. He emotes with his eyes where McConaughey emotes with his physicality. The race also features Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Christian Bale (American Hustle), and Bruce Dern (Nebraska), which are all very different roles. Statistics website Gold Derby has McConaughey in the lead to win with odds of 2:13. With his recent trajectory, it does feel like he is a lock, and not a controversial one at that.

Jared Leto has also managed to become a front runner, though I am not entirely desiring a win there. He could get it based on the nobility of his role and respectful depiction of gays (see: Sean Penn, Best Actor - Milk). While the Academy has had a bias against gay themed movies winning top prize, they have always rewarded the acting categories. This year appears to be no exception, even with Fassbender being his biggest threat and the category featuring Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), and the highly captivating but probably overlooked Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips). The performers in this category aren't nearly as exciting as the Best Actor race, but that is fine. Gold Derby has Leto set to win with odds of 1:10. 

I think that it is a testament to the year that the Best Acting category has a complicated mixture of nominees. It also helps that Dallas Buyers Club is an acting tycoon and came out like an unexpected threat. Even with all of these films receiving a lot of acclaim, it is exciting to see an underdog getting so much recognition. As I will discuss in a later piece, I am saddened that the Oscar race has prematurely given up on a sweep by 12 Years a Slave, but at least it isn't to a film with problematic elements. There is no Silver Linings Playbook on the list threatening to upset the best film, and that alone feels like an achievement.

Will Matthew McConaughey have any threat from losing to Chiwetel Ejiofor? What is with that Best Editing nomination? Is the film successful because of its heavy subject matter or its performances, or both?

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