Dallas Buyers Club (2014)
The McConnaisance continues. After blasting his way out of rom-com hell with Killer Joe a few years back, Matthew McConnaughey has seen his career warp to new heights following memorable turns in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, as the chanting fiscal tutor in Scorsese’s Wolf Of Wall Street, and a central turn in what I’m hearing is the best show since The Wire, HBO’s barnstorming True Detective. In the meantime he’s also managed that miniscule feat of securing his first Oscar nomination, a best Actor nod for the role of AID’s afflicted hustler in Dallas Buyers Club which I decided to take in this week as part of my final preparations for the Oscar ceremony – please allow me to explain. I don’t bother staying up to watch the pointless paraphernalia of the live broadcast anymore, I’ve never thought that the nominees necessarily represent the highest quality fare of the year on either side of the camera, but as an obsessive film fan it is nice to have something of a schedule of screenings to work toward, so with this, Her and Blue Jasmine which should arrival on my rental queue shortly I should be able to get most of the major contenders under my belt before the ceremony occurs. Again there was some buzz around this from TiFF which has steadily grown internationally over the past few months, reading around the margins of the film is does sound like a rather unusual project beyond its secluded subject matter, but one thing is clear – this is a film of exceptional performances, culled from a true story of a spirited triumph against adversary both medical and bureaucratic which the Academy often admire, and I reckon that Ejiofor is on for a serious contender for the best actor gong despite his brilliant performance in 12 Years A Slave.
Texas, 1985 and masculine moustache man Ron Woodruff (McConaughey) is something of bloke’s bloke, fond of a beer or three, with an eye for the ladies he refuses to accept reality when he is diagnosed with AID’s after a rush to hospital following a drug induced collapse. Like his blue-collar friends he dislikes ‘queers’ whom he slurs at every opportunity, physically threatening anyone ‘fruity’ who has the misfortune to cross his path, initially viewing his medical situation as misdiagnosis as AID’s is just a homosexual pathogen. Only when he researches the illness beyond his ignorant horizons does he discover that the virus can be transmitted through straight sex as well, but still refusing to succumb to the inevitable he finds coldly himself ostracized by both family and friends. At such an early stage in the disease before extensive research was conducted it’s complications were relatively unknown, but Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) offers Ron a sliver of hope as a member of a testing team of a solution called AZT—an antiviral that might delay the inevitable, and the only drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for human trials. Given the corporate restrictions of the treatment Ron angrily rejects the assistance, and deploying his con-man grifter style skills he is soon sourcing alternative treatments across the border, his enterprise exploding with popularity after he reluctantly partners up with the effeminately fading Roy (Jared Leto). Ron’s clever ruse of offering the drugs under a membership framework in order to circumnavigate the FDA’s draconian enforcement rules sets him on a path of conflict with the prejudicial government, so the stage is set for a David versus Goliath sized battle against the clock which ticks against a mortal coil….
In many ways this film has Oscar bait written all over it, on some level it’s a heartwarming struggle against adversity, with a terminally ill central protagonist, with a sub-text of a little man’s struggle against bureaucracy thrown in for audience empathic measure. It also has the visible factor of McConaughey’s gaunt weight loss dedication which critics like to methodologically seize upon – see also Raging Bull, The Machinist and The Meaning Of Life – and there’s also a ‘brave’ performance from Leto, assaulting prejudice and Hollywood normative gender roles as a cross-dressing gay dude, but you’d have to be bearing a heart of stone not to be moved by Ron and Raymond’s plucky plight in the face of such lethal certainty. Crucially this is a fairly uncompromising picture, it’s very coarse in language, in drug use and in sexual activity, in presenting Ron as an extremely unsympathetic figure for the majority of the movie, he’s clearly out for No.1 even when he sets up his life-enhancing network, remaining somewhat ambivalent toward his homosexual customers whom he initially views as income generators for his own wider research. The medical unease is also not sugar-coated as figures vomit blood, become disfigured with pulsing lesions and are afflicted with other associated symptoms, let me be clear that this is no film with a sepia-toned angelic portrayal of stalwart heroes quietly passing away to a heavenly choir as the tear-stained soaring score rises, it’s ugly, it’s scrappy and is filmed with a scorching verite frisson. Whilst I can see why Leto’s supporting turn has been signaled out for attention he verges on Julian Clary levels of camp at times, but with his requisite couple of character scenes he projects himself gracefully, although I still didn’t feel I got a sense of the obviously terrified man behind his facade. McConnaughey however is in a whole other league, his movement from ignorant homophobe to desperate champion is organically paced, his increasingly shattered and exhausting frame inverting with the slow erosion of his deeply etched prejudice as the situation becomes increasingly grim.
What has fascinated me about the film beyond the central story is its pre-production struggle, the subject matter as you would imagine was hardly a honey-pot for investors (its taken over twenty years to get the film financed since screenwriter Craig Borten interviewed the real Ron back in 1992) so like McConnaughey’s titanic struggle the project was finally great-lit on a emasculated schedule of 25 days, and just for context most films of such a equivalent scale would the luxury of twice that period. As such given the numerous set-ups and coverage demanded by the schedule each and every day there was zero time for improvisation or for coaxing out alternate takes whilst exploring scenes, and that urgency bleeds through to the screen in its sense of realism and hurried, anxious immediacy. Natural lighting is used throughout the film as no lighting rigs were feasible, when the dust settled the picture cost a paltry £5 million to make which is barely Kraft Services on a franchise picture. I enjoyed the film a great deal and found it moving and angry inducing in equal measure, even Garner’s potential love interest didn’t fully assimilate the usual Hollywood rules, appearing unadorned and shorn of make-up she also made for a mostly convincing figure. Has it got the strength to cradle those heavy gold statuettes come the ceremony in March? Well sometimes Hollywood likes the plucky underdog which is what the films represents on a both a fictional and non-fictional level, although the subject matter may still be something of a turn-off for the elderly, conservative sorts who compose the majority of the membership, but then again Tom Hanks won for Philadelphia twenty years ago which is a film which is in a similar territory. In any case the two front runners have emerged, as much as I enjoyed both Bale in Hustle, Dern in Nebraska and DeCaprio in Wolf the performances are not even remotely as accomplished and fully fleshed in terms of trauma, and on that front alone Dallas Buyers Club is worth an investment of your time;