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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Dallas Buyers Club

Or: “Handsome, in a dumb hick Texas kind of way”*

I swear I’m going to need to visit the doctor; Director Jean-Marc Vallee has so codified the symptoms of his characters illness that it’s transmutable through the screen. The audio cue for “HIV strikes again”, a high pitched hum (the b*sterd child of a wineglass rim ring and a florescent tube throb), has so intrenched itself in my ears I fear I shall never be rid of it. Side affects aside, Dallas Buyers Club is a solid and articulate film about health and wellness, subjects oft tackled but rarely mastered.

It’s 1986, hight of the AIDS epidemic, and Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), bullrider, bull-cusser, letcher, drug addict, homophobic and Type A example of the worst of the Good Ol’ Boys, discovers he is HIV positive. With characteristic swagger he illicitly gets hold of some AZT, the only Federally Approved AIDS medication at the time and is nonplussed to find it’s killing him faster than the disease. Sneaking alternative, nonFDA approved,Drugs from Mexico Ron soon finds himself at the head of the Dallas Buyers Club, a membership to the AIDS community across texas who can have access to his medication for a hefty fee. Assisted by the kindly Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) and the ailing transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto), Ron soon finds himself standing up to the Federal Government and serving as Shepard to the very people he once despised.

Once again McConaughey delivers a well tooled, crocodilian performance that outshines even his work in and as Mud. This time instead of an act of unveiling he hands us an evening of transformation. When we first meet Woodroof, not five seconds into the film, he is making the beast with two backs with two ladies of negotiable affection in a bull pen while a rodeo is in play. His snorts of exertion and restless eye-rolling matching the snorts and rolls of the creatures in the arena, and he only gets more bestial from there. About three fourths through the movie, once he has discovered compassion, love and a purpose, we see him evolved into an earthy but charming man of quick and lively wit, fierce friend and fiercer foe. In between we have a lot of what is commonly referred to as “come-to-J*sus” moments, moments of rage and suffering that make do for character development in the movies. McConaughey actually handles these well, with gasping sobs and grief-rattles that have the engraved stamp of authenticity, but there is a long way between acknowledging a thing as true and being moved by it.

Leto to gives a similar order, perhaps even more nuanced: eggshell-thin class and hauteur over well deep despair. He actually does manage to move us many a time with his brave words and tart glances, but only after, gazing at his emaciated features and frame, we swat down the thoughts of, “Smeagol. That’s Smeagol in heels. Precious.” Garner, proud and righteous, could use a little more attention from the writers, seeing as we are supposed to take her profane and radically out of character squawks against her coats-of-white-hearts-of-pitch superiors as Oscar-Winning moments. She is much more at home dealing with her patience where she calm, kind and smoothing, the sort of professional you would want seeing you through a terminal illness.

I applaud writers Borten and Wallack for addressing themselves to this little known story of sustained everyday heroism and kindness, and for spelling the ins and outs of Pharmaceutical law so clearly. I am less impressed with Vallee’s cinematic focus and chronology: the leaping and juddering of the camera lens is only mildly less annoying than the snap cuts across days, months, years and rooms. Some shots, such as Woolroof’s forcible removal from the Hospital are top notch but by and large the experimenting adds only a headache and queasiness to the “HIV strikes again” induced tinnitus. Still, it’s a hopeful film, not just about living with disease but about changing even the dimmest of souls for a brighter wattage, and I wish it well. The spirit in which a story is loosed counts for something, even if it falls flat on its face.

*Subtitle lifted from film itself, no undue disrespect intended to the Lone Star State, its citizens, or its far flung children.

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