Tuesday 17 December 2013

Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

The story of one terminally ill man's struggle against a system slow to react to a health crisis, Dallas Buyers Club features a wrenching Matthew McConaughey performance, but otherwise struggles to sustain interest over a bloated running length.

It's 1985, and AIDS is still considered a disease confined to homosexuals and intravenous drug users. Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is a blue collar heterosexual electrician working the Texas oil fields, and a rodeo cowboy in his spare time. Ron is energetically wasting his life on anonymous sex with a succession of floozies, drinking, snorting cocaine, and gambling. Unable to fight off a persistent cough, Ron is hospitalized, and blood tests indicate that he is HIV positive. The doctors at the hospital, including Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), tell him that he has about 30 days to live.

Incredulous, Ron educates himself about the disease and illegally consumes enormous amounts of the still-experimental AZT drug. He nevertheless contracts full-blown AIDS, then visits Mexico and starts to experiment with concoctions of vitamins, proteins and supplements. But many of these seemingly helpful substances are unapproved for treatment in the United States. Undeterred, Ron starts smuggling medications, and with the help of transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto), distributing them through a membership scheme. His club is popular with HIV and AIDS sufferers and Ron gradually gains the sympathy and admiration of Eve, but he also attracts the attention of government types unimpressed with the proliferation of unapproved substances.

Inspired by a true story, Dallas Buyers Club starts strongly, and the first 45 minutes are a gripping reminder of the horrors of AIDS, a modern-day plague that caught the world by surprise and ravaged millions of lives. Ron represents his society of macho rodeo men and greasy blue collar workers, as far removed as possible from the homosexual community where the disease was supposed to reside, and totally oblivious to the emerging mortal threat.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée succeeds in creating an unsympathetic protagonist, a man least likely to take on any cause for any reason. Ron's refusal to accept his fate, his one-man mission to seek treatment alternatives and his gradual acceptance of Rayon and the gay community as fellow-sufferers all represent compelling human-scaled drama.

But the film plateaus and begins to flounder once Ron establishes his underground medical distribution business. The skirmishes with the suits representing the Federal Drug Administration and Internal Revenue Service are sketched in with the broadest of strokes, while the continued suffering experienced by Ron and Rayon as their health ebbs and flows starts to become repetitive and ultimately borders on melodramatic. The stuttering interaction between Ron and Eve goes nowhere, and appears inserted to introduce a female role of sorts into the film. Vallée stretches the movie to almost two hours, and there is not enough material for that length. A good 20 minutes could have been edited out to retain some momentum in the story's back half.

With a haunting performance, McConaughey does his utmost to maintain interest long after the story runs out of steam. Thinned down to a lean, hungry frame, his cheeks withdrawn into scary holes and his eyes dark and bulging, McConaughey starts the film as an unhealthy man not aware of how sick he is, and then engages in a mammoth struggle against a killer disease. It's impossible to watch anything else when McConaughey is on the screen, as his shifty, intense, stubborn and rejectionist attitude declares war on the medical establishment and its prediction of his early demise.

Dallas Buyers Club is a story of survival on independent terms, one man finally learning to live and love when he should have had no more time to do either.

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