One of my pet peeves about modern movies is their “visceral,” up-too-close-too-often camerawork. Dallas Buyers Club made me rethink my generalization, as this tactic is simply a technique that needs to be grounded.
In Dallas Buyers Club, the camera sputters with a slasher victim’s enthusiasm for safety in the midst of a frightening cinematic universe one made only more harrowing by its truth. For those afflicted during the 1980s AIDS crisis, there was only death and the lengths you were willing to run from it.
This feeling of claustrophobic desperation is firmly planted in the movie’s soil, from our first glimpse of a rodeo crowd through an iron gate to the epilogue text that predictably fades to black. In between, Dallas Buyers Club is a good movie elevated by two titanic performances from actors who haven’t often had too many chances to bite into a steak this rare.
Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto come up mouths bloody and dripping, the former as Ron Woodruff, a homophobic, take-no-prisoners rodeo tough; the latter as Rayon, a drag queen who refuses to let illness take his swagger, even when the days are darker than his eye shadow.
The only real issue is that the movie, and director Jean Marc Vallée, often don’t – sometimes for reasons of necessity, sometimes for flaws in approach – quite reach the same level. If the performances didn’t go so far, Club could pass for Flight in the way that it tinges itself with ’90s feel-good, opposites-attract cinema gook.
Thankfully, you can see this more in the framing of the movie than its execution. When we first meet Woodruff, he’s wasting away outside and in, on a steady diet of coke, women and whiskey. He’s the kind of guy who, when too high to fuck, will just watch his buddy T.J. (Kevin Rankin, a.k.a. the mustachioed Nazi who was Uncle Jack’s right-hand man on Breaking Bad) – live the dream. As T.J. puts it, Woodruff has a pussy addiction and is proud of it.
His tendencies toward earthly pleasures eventually bring him into a fight with a local cop (Steve Zahn) that leads to a hospital where the pleasant and prim nurse, Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner, whose script handler must be the Peyton Manning of script handling), and some other jerk doctor tell him he has 30 days to live.
Getting most of this setup out of the way quickly is also an adept choice, because the movie excels in its portrayal of a world caught in the terror that stems from a modern-day plague. The plot gains momentum fast – Woodruff’s friends abandon him, he can’t get work and his house is splattered with the word faggot in red – and the camera wisely captures him like a bull in a cage, caught between houses and haunts that are no longer home.
Next is the comeback story. By chance, he ends up buying AZT illegally from a local clinic until they send him to Mexico for more. From there, Woodruff is locked in survival mode. Most often he’s raging against the FDA, which serves as an interesting foil for the movie. Dallas Buyers Club does a good job of raising questions about the ethics of government actions while keeping the focus on the film’s life-or-death energy.
Speaking of questions, there are a few questionable plot devices smeared over by the fact that it’s a true story, such as the doctor who quits to join the noble cause, the Mexican supplier with an unlimited stash of drugs and so on. But they don’t matter, because the film rides on the power of its stars.
Leto is effortless as Rayon, with a performance that has a Heath Ledger-as-Joker quality. The movie is better every second he’s in it and misses him when he’s gone. The fact that this portrayal almost overshadows McConaughey’s near-perfect acting is saying something, but the roles work best together. McConaughey is the cement, Leto the blowing breeze, and the movie needs both.
McConaughey really does deserve to be the talk of the town. The role caps an impressive streak for the 41-year-old that’s included great work in largely unnoticed films like Killer Joe, Mud and The Lincoln Lawyer. The movie and McConaughey’s story are the kinds of comeback tales Hollywood loves to tell – and reward, come Oscar season.
Pete Rizzo can be reached at prizzo33