Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) – Review

Review: Dallas Buyers Club is a good character drama built on a great leading performance. The film is about Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician and rodeo bull rider who contracts the HIV virus in 1985. Woodroof must face the social stigma of the disease, and worse – he must fight against the pharmaceutical industry (having both the FDA and medical community in their pockets) to get medication that might actually help him and others (similarly afflicted).

The film functions both as a character drama and a social/political drama. The character drama focuses on a man who essentially loses everything and needs to rebuild his world anew. Woodroof can be characterized as a man’s man. He works hard, but probably parties harder, engaging in lots of illicit drugs, sex, and alcohol. This lifestyle leads to him contracting the HIV virus, which in the 1980s was completely associated by the general population as being a ‘gay disease’ (before HIV, it was commonly referred to as GRID – gay-related immune deficiency). Thus, Woodroof is suddenly stricken with not only the disease but a social stigma as well, isolating him from his friends and the world he previously knew.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee does a good job with the character moments. When the audience first meets Woodroof, he is not a particularly likable character (especially when held to modern social conventions). And yet, Vallee is able to show the humanity within the man and the struggle he must take on, which the audience can relate to and connect with – and from a place of compassion, they do. A transformation begins both with Woodroof and the audience’s perception of him. Woodroof morphs into a hero. While initially motivated by selfish needs, he ultimately becomes a redeemed character and altruistic. And, the character flaws that the audience may have initially seen as negatives suddenly become charming and a sign of inner strength. Vallee takes an unlikable character and transforms him into a heroic character that the audience cares about – no small feat.

Dallas Buyers Club is a very good character drama, which is what it primarily functions as, but it is maybe an even more interesting social/political drama. Character dramas built on strong performances and similar narrative structures are somewhat common in Hollywood’s pseudo-independent cinema, but this film also explores a topic that is not commonly investigated in pop culture: the shameful corrupting of America’s healthcare system by the pharmaceutical industry. People are probably peripherally aware of how pharmaceutical companies manipulate healthcare providers and rig the system, but there are not too many mainstream dramas that really get at the heart of their unscrupulous practices (here are a few that touch on the subject to varying degrees: The Fugitive, Love and Other Drugs, Brain Candy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and The Constant Gardener).

With Dallas Buyers Club, Vallee does take a pretty direct approach to showcasing how the pharmaceutical companies impede treating patients in favor of profits, but the focus is more on the character of Woodroof than on the actions of Big Pharma. The issue here, however, arises from the narrative featuring Big Pharma buying off doctors and the FDA to promote its own drugs while condemning other treatments that might actually save lives (while their drug, in the wrong dosage, was leading to patients developing full blown AIDS as their systems were being ravaged by this HIV treatment) is much more compelling than the character drama. Woodroof tries to fight back, but he is too small. It might have been nice to see Woodroof as one of many characters at different levels in the overall struggle to fight Big Pharma in hopes of getting better HIV treatments to patients in America. This is a narrative that is begging to be told, while character dramas narratively structured like Dallas Buyers Club are common (not to take anything away from Woodroof and the amazing work he did).

The result of these complementary yet competing narratives is that Woodroof’s narrative starts to lose steam and begins to feel drawn out and overly long, leading to the audience losing their connection to the characters to some degree. Vallee’s narrative just does not feel efficient and tight, which holds what is otherwise a great film from being something special. The slow pacing dissipates the overall emotional impact of the narrative, which is this film’s essential component in its ability to resonate deeply with viewers.

Dallas Buyers Club ends up as more an exhibition of a great performance than a great film itself. Vallee has structured the whole narrative to support the lead performance (as well as a couple principal supporting performances), but somewhat at the cost of making a strong overall film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Jean-Marc Vallee is a director gifted with the ability to garner strong performances and create a great visual style for his narratives (which can also be seen in his films C.R.A.Z.Y. and The Young Victoria). Dallas Buyers Club offers what is probably Vallee’s most visceral character work, but of his three best films it is probably the weakest structurally. That said, I am really looking forward to his next: a character drama called Wild featuring writer Nick Hornby scripting and Reese Witherspoon starring.

Working with Vallee, cinematographer Yves Belanger and production designer John Paino create a very realistic and rough visual style for the film. Belanger seems to mostly rely on natural lighting sources while probably also employing some color desaturation as well. The film looks a bit washed out, which fits tonally really well. Paino’s design work finds Woodroof inhabiting what can only be described as a very abrasive, grainy, and tough world. It also keeps everything grounded in support of the performances, as everything looks natural.

As said above, Dallas Buyers Club is built upon and centered on its central character/performance. However, there are some good supporting performances as well. Griffin Dunne, Denis O’Hare, and particularly Kevin Rankin are strong in small roles. Jennifer Garner is good as Dr. Eve Saks, a doctor who follows Woodroof’s case and starts to buy into what he is saying about other treatments. Garner is always good at mixing a cute personality with a sense of inner strength and determination, which servers her well in this role. Jared Leto (after taking an acting hiatus) returns as Rayon, Woodroof’s partner in establishing the Dallas Buyers Club to get medication to those in need, reminding everyone of his talent. Rayon is a complex and troubled character (whose drug addiction is ultimately his downfall despite all he knows about treating his illness) and Leto plays him beautifully. Matthew McConaughey is fantastic as Woodroof. 2013 has been a very strong year for him as an actor. With Mud and now Dallas Buyers Club (and he still has a supporting role in The Wolf of Wall Street coming up in December), he has delivered two of his career best performances. His Woodroof is scared underneath it all, but a scrappy fighter to the very end, not to mention a bit of a charmer too (playing off McConaughey’s natural charm).

Summary & score: Dallas Buyers Club succeeds as a performance drive character drama, but it feels like it could have been something much more. 7/10

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