A Review of Jean Marc-Vallés’s Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
By Jake Bann
If the first scene in Dallas Buyers Club—Jean Marc-Vallée’s Oscar-nominated, low-budget miracle—is any indication, the conventions of the familiar, feel-good biopic we all know and love were growing old. And, perhaps, as such, our expectations of the genre were ready to change. Pure fact? Not here. Dramatic retelling in the name of pure experience? Yes.
Marc-Vallée and his writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack have usurped the conventional biopic’s “here’s our character before sh** hits the fan” and the “here’s our character once said sh** lands on the floor” moments in favor of a more direct, completely visceral first two minutes. Here, Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof lives and dies in the same breath, fornicating in a rodeo stable as the soon-familiar, high-pitched HIV death rattle seeps into his ears. It’s an overwhelming introduction to the story, as we immediately understand the daily experience of the rejected and unrestrained Woodroof. This is his life. This is his challenge: to keep living while still dying.
Woodroof’s story provides just a small glimpse into the politics of the many “buyers clubs” that sprouted throughout the country during the late ‘80s/early ‘90s AIDS crisis, where people purchased and distributed unregulated drugs to sick, if not dying, AIDS-infected patients. However, the real lens Marc-Vallée affords us is unto Ron Woodroof the man—the vengeful and virile cowboy and the ruthlessly homophobic-turned-compassionate Texan—inching his way to longevity pill by pill, day by day, buyer by buyer.
McConaughey’s stunning performance (dropping a reported 50 pounds for the role) is matched only by Jared Leto’s transgendered, AIDS-infected, “dying to be beautiful” Rayon (equally emaciated), who presents another challenge to the genre: arriving late and leaving unfashionably early, not with a bang, but, in accordance with the fate of most AIDS patients, a whisper. Borten’s admission that there was no actual Rayon, and that Leto’s character was simply an amalgamation of personalities he and Wallack met during their research, does little to mitigate the character’s verisimilitude. Leto conveys both shocking body horror and understated drama, playing the part with the sacrifice of Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznik (The Machinist) and the humanity of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote (Capote).
A trite Jennifer Garner unfortunately makes her way onto the screen, her character there seemingly to represent the handful of doctors willing not merely to oblige the bureaucratic FDA—who kept working drugs out of the hands of the infected—but to actually help the sick. Her one scene of rage (taking a hammer to dry wall), however, might altogether make up for her lacking allure.
A fantastic Griffin Dunne, as the hippie American expatriate Dr. Vass operating out of Mexico, compliments the great performances, and the rustic, monochromatic cinematography of Yves Bélanger accentuates the sweltering performances in the dry, Texas heat. The Dallas Buyers Club is now on DVD.
Critic’s Rating: ★★★★ 4 out of 5 stars