Oscar Review: DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
by Witney Seibold on January 28, 2014
Witney is recapping the Best Picture Oscar nominees for Nerdist. Today, it’s Dallas Buyers Club…
In short: Go see Dallas Buyers Club for the acting. Matthew McConaughey has been gunning for an Academy Award for years, selecting “daring” or “edgy” films that seem to play to his strengths while also refreshingly outside of his wheelhouse (Magic Mike, Mud, and Killer Joe all spring to immediately mind). Can you blame the guy? He is a talented and perhaps underrated performer whose laidback cowboy persona perhaps obstructs how much range he actually has. With Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey seems to have finally found the golden mean. Ron Woodruff, the charismatic rodeo star, is right up his alley, but it also hits the topical hot buttons so beloved by the Academy: Woodruff is a real person (the Academy loves them some biographical performances), and it deals with a capital-I-important social issue (Woodruff fights for the rights of marginalized AIDS patients to get the medicines they need).
And, yes, McConaughey is amazing. He is totally convincing as an ultra-straight, drug-and-sex-addicted party boy, who is handsome and charming enough to be a believable real-world blue-collar hedonist, but whose transformation into an unwitting hero of the gay community only flows naturally from his character. His dogged determination to achieve his medicine-based goals, then, feels less like standard action hero cliché (the default setting for most action heroes seems to be dogged determination), and more like a necessary survival tactic. In a very real way, Ron Woodruff has to open his mind or die. His interplay and reluctant friendship with the stick-thin mincing transvestite Rayon (a very good Jared Leto) is more interesting than his charming dinners with the boring white doctor (Jennifer Garner) who is unable to help him.
And while Dallas Buyers Club as a whole is very good, ultimately I am a little distracted by how by-the-numbers After-School-Special it feels at times. It’s not melodramatic, per se – indeed director Jean-Marc Vallée infuses the drama with a rough-edged, washed out photography, lending a classical, drab, early-’80s authenticity to the proceedings – but the story strikes me as being pointedly topical. The entire project smacks of deliberate timeliness, not an urgency of storytelling, if that makes any sense. Indeed, how important is Ron Woodruff’s story in the grand scope of the AIDS crisis? He didn’t invent buyers clubs – they acknowledge in the movie that they were already a thing before Woodruff came along – and, most noticeably, he is not a member of the gay community. I know a gay film critic who refers to Dallas Buyers Club as a condescending Thank You, Straight Man.
A buyers club, by the way, was a clever loophole in the law that allowed people to sell FDA-unapproved drugs on the black market without being pegged as drug dealers. Technically, the drugs are free; it’s membership in a buyers club that costs.
Jared Leto, nothing of not wholly dedicated, is rather good as Rayon, and he may also win his Academy Award for supporting actor, but his character feels a bit too much like a throwback. The mincing, fashion-obsessed, occasionally suicidal gay character is a clichéd stereotype that gay people have been trying to overcome for years. See Rent.
But I don’t want to sound like a contrarian and nitpicker, nor do I want to come across like I’m constantly distracted by politics. I did really like Dallas Buyers Club, and recommend it to anyone who is interested. I don’t think it’s one of the best pictures of the year, and it will most certainly not win the Best Picture Oscar, but it reveals a chapter in AIDS history that I wasn’t too familiar with going in. And, back to the center, it allows Matthew McConaughey to shine on. McConaughey’s life philosophy has always been one of “jus’ keep livin’.” Here’s a film about that.
Odds to win: 40:1