A definite high point in the still rising career Matthew McConaughey, and a very good, but lesser film in the career of Canadian director Jean-MarcVallee, Dallas Buyers Club runs a bit overlong, but it delivers a firm emotional punch at the hands of an unrepentant and initially reprehensible protagonist.
Diagnosed with HIV in 1985, ladies man, homophobe, and all around degenerate Ron Woodruff (McConaughey) initially continues snorting coke, having unprotected sex, and drinking his face off. Since he isn’t gay, he doesn’t believe he could possibly be dying of the then (and still now) misunderstood disease. After abusing AZT illegally (then the only approved drug to fight the virus despite horrible side effects) and with his health worsening, Woodruff partners up with his old transexual roommate from the hospital (Jared Leto) to import safer, but FDA unapproved drugs from Mexico and exploiting numerous loopholes in the system for health and profit.
The gaunt and frail looking McConaughey gives it everything he has physically and emotionally, owning the film at every turn. Woodruff never fully breaks out of his redneck charms and ways, which makes the questioning of his true altruism all the more intriguing. Ron’s the kind of guy who has made his life comfortable by hustling everyone around him, and his diagnosis feels more like a justified sort of karma. He beds women like they’re objects merely there for his amusement, and he shows open disdain for anyone who won’t simply bow to him and allow him to get his way. Job like, McConaughey’s Woodruff very slowly becomes more sympathetic, with neither Vallee or his leading man giving into genre clichés. Ron Woodruff really isn’t a likable guy even when he does start illegally helping people in need. That makes McConaughey’s work here all the more electric.
Leto also delivers solid work, looking and acting very much like a junkie and making a passable looking woman. His portrayal of the constantly struggling Rayon might garner more notices come Oscar season for a supporting actor nod than the film’s lead (who finds himself against some pretty steep competition this year). It can’t be easy to play a character that’s a closeted and insecure junkie, especially one that’s so open and frank about their sexuality. There are layers to Rayon that Ron could never understand, and that’s probably why the duo gets along so well and why one cares for the other. Rayon in no way offers Ron any sort of quarter for his bigotry, but rather offers the misguided antihero ways to look at his own vices through a new perspective. Again, the performance works because the film has no desire to fall into transsexual or drug addict clichés.
It’s kind of a shame that the film ultimately falters at times, though. Jennifer Garner can’t really do very much because she’s given all of the film’s somewhat suspect moralizing as a sympathetic doctor. It’s a poorly realized character and Garner at times seems unsure of how she should be playing her. Sometimes the character is a bit too mousy for her own good, making her more dramatic grandstanding moments ring false. And the less said about an ill advised dinner meeting between her character and Woodruff where they flirt a little, the better. How odd that a film with such a strong transsexual character still can’t find room for a strong female lead.
As for Vallee, he maintains the ability to create a great looking and visually poetic film – obviously with a great soundtrack – but unlike C.R.A.Z.Y. or Cafe de Flore, there’s a distinct lack of real authorial statement outside of a few briefly almost hallucinatory moments designed to underline Ron’s struggles. It’s more in step tonally with the still good, but flawed, work he did on The Young Victoria. It’s more like he was brought in as a hired gun rather than as someone given free reign over a production. In a way, that’s kind of a bummer since he’s one of the best filmmakers in the world when someone lets him just run wild with the material he has to work with. Things are a bit more subdued here, probably because the screenplay from Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten is all to intent to create all the big heartfelt moments through exposition instead of visuals. And that’s okay, but at times it becomes a bit hard to shake that about 10 or so other directors could have made Dallas Buyers Club and it would have turned out just as good, or possibly even better.
Also, while the conclusion thankfully doesn’t leap into predictability for the most part, the early going tends to drag more than the latter half when McConaughey and Leto are able to play off each other a bit more. It’s actually a compliment that McConaughey can make the film get off to as great of a start as it does because most of it seems like character notes and padding that will only serve to make the journey richer as a whole.
Dallas Buyers Club shoots for greatness in many ways, but ultimately falls just short and ends up just being very good. Nothing against being very good, but the elements of this movie that are excellent are almost too good for the overall whole.