dir: Jean Marc Vallée
Another flick set in the 1980s. Something has happened, some perfect amount of time has elapsed which means the 80s are now what the 60s used to be as far as movies are concerned. Maybe there's sufficient distance for perspective, maybe it's an excuse for 'period' pictures that are mostly dependent on clichés and lazy visuals and themes. Maybe it's just an excuse to look ever backwards, to ignore how little we've progressed.
Dallas Buyers Club, of all the films up for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards, is probably the least Oscarbait-y, despite its subject matter. It's the one that panders the least, again, despite the fact that it's about AIDS during the peak of the AIDS epidemic, or at least about a bunch of people struggling with AIDS during the Ronald "let's collectively stick out fingers in our ears and ignore their pleas for help because they're degenerates" Reagan era.
Matthew McConaughey of course has been nominated, because whenever any actor loses a dangerous amount of weight it's considered the pinnacle of acting. I don't know about that (it strikes me as the height of idiocy), but I guess I can assert at least that it indicates a level of commitment to a role. It shows that they're willing to sacrifice their health and their long term survivability just for the applause of their peers.
Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, they're applauded more for just losing the weight, because, hell, it's not like all those anorexics and people with body issues feel shit enough as it is. So there's nothing like an already thin person losing even more weight to convince you that the biggest problem in your life is how much adipose tissue you possess.
That's by the by. McConaughey has been almost universally great in everything I've seen him in, in the last couple of years. I don't know what the guy did, smoked, listened to or decided, but something has changed dramatically in just how willing he is to get a character across in movies now. Maybe he wasn't shit before, maybe he was always solid and I just didn't see it or care because his drawling way of talking was just so annoying.
After I saw Mud last year, though, I realised he had far more to contribute to both cinema and my life. He was tremendous in Mud, truly great, and it means I'll generally give him the benefit of the doubt from now on, at least until all this praise goes to his head and he ends up burning down an orphanage on a meth fuelled rage because he's convinced he can do no wrong.
I assure you, Mr McConaughey, you can do plenty wrong, but at least you're not doing it in films anymore.
Here, loosely following the life story of an actual human being called Ron Woodroof, and plays him like he was a degenerate, homophobic prick of a guy, who happened to get AIDS when it wasn't particularly understood or treatable. It was then, as it thankfully is no longer now, a death sentence, and when it's revealed to him that he has it, he threatens the doctor, because he feels the diagnosis is a slight against his heterosexuality.
His heaving, hyper-masculine, throbbing heterosexuality. Amidst his peers, AIDS is that disease that only the evil dreaded 'faggots' get, and of course there are ironic scenes before and after his verdict where he's spouting venomous homophobic dribble, and then becomes the target of the same shitkicker mentality from former friends.
We're left with no doubt how Ron "must" have contracted the dreaded disease. We see him with multiple skanks in flashbacks, but he flashes back to a particular one who was an obvious intravenous drug user. He didn't care at the time, because as a prized rodeo clown, or whatever his actual part-time job description was in between jobs as a sparkie, he has his pick of the desperate and drug-addled, and as a good ol' boy, and a drug dealer and addict himself (though not needles, they go out of their way to show), he wasn't picky.
He is at pains to show how not gay he is, throughout the flick. Sometimes it's almost pathetically charming, like when he's hitting on a sympathetic doctor (Jennifer Garner) when he's already deep into his symptoms, but other times there's this meanness, like under no circumstances does he want to be confused with the evil gays who clearly deserve what happened to him, unlike himself.
You might here, or see promotional stuff that implies Ron goes on a journey of self-discovery changing from a virulent homophobe to someone with greater compassion and empathy.
That is, to use the technical term, bullshit. Ron starts off a mean, selfish, abusive prick who maligns gays at every opportunity, and stays one pretty much for all of his 'journey'.
That's one of the things I admire about the film, the screenplay, and the performance the most.
Why? Well, it's because I find that more believable, and more probable. Shitty people rarely become less shitty just because they go through awful circumstances on their way to a painful - and what should have been avoidable - death.
This is the conceit the film avoids, which other films of its ilk embrace. It's too easy, and convenient as a character arc.
Instead, Ron's motivation is to exploit the misery of gay men with AIDS to make money to further his own goal, which is to survive.
After being told that he probably has weeks to live, because his T cell counts are so low, and his viral load is so high, exacerbated by his drinking and drug use, Ron desperately and furiously reaches, strives, fights for more life. In these early days, he hears about drug trials potentially combating HIV, which are being done as double blinds (two groups, with patients having no idea whether they're getting the drug or the placebo).
Ron's very motivated, so at first he tries to get into one of the groups. No go, he's too far gone and too irritating. His next attempt is at bribing a janitor at the hospital where he knows the trials are occurring with getting him the drug, AZT.
Things are great at first, because he's getting what he thinks is exactly the thing that will keep him alive. Of course, he finds out the AZT is killing him quicker than the AIDS.
Through this, because it's not a film about a man coming to terms with his own mortality, or changing his ways or opinions, the film becomes One Man's Struggle Against The System. The System is the Food and Drug Administration, the drug companies and the doctors who act as henchmen for the drug companies. Of course the doctors are going to (with the exception of Garner's character) be seen as officious at best, and coldly callous at worst. The drug companies don't get a physical embodiment in the flick, but the FDA gets to jackboot all over Ron's hopes and dreams, looking like it's doing fascist stuff for all the wrong (ie. monetary) reasons.
Ron tries everything to work around, to sneak under, to evade all the seemingly malicious stuff the FDA is doing. The title of the flick comes from something Ron (with help) set up to sidestep punitive legislation trying to stop him from doing what he was doing.
And what was he doing? He was finding out about all sorts of trials and studies overseas for stuff that in a lot of cases wasn't what you would call medicine (peptides, organic compounds, all sorts of stuff that helped with the symptoms of having AIDS), and bringing it into the country. People bought membership in his club (hence the title), and then he was (eventually) giving the stuff to them for "free".
With this he'd be funded enough to be able to keep himself alive with interferon and other pricey, untried stuff. He's no altruist, he's purely focussed on number one. Ron Fucking Swanson, I mean, Ron Fucking Woodroof.
To this end, he enlists the help of someone in the 'scene' who he can exploit to help him achieve his goals. Ron, initially, tries hawking his wares to men in beat areas, and gets rebuffed, because clearly he's too heterosexual, and, he's horribly insulting to them as well. But the tragically beautiful Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender Texan, is his bridge into "their" world, a bridge he walks over many a time.
Rayon might as well be the heroine in a Verdi opera because she is clearly too fragile for this world. And disturbing, and sweet. Leto looks like he lost even more weight that McConaughey for the role, looking like a sad skeleton, or like Candy Darling from the cover of that Antony and the Johnsons album I Am a Bird Now. Rayon has the same death sentence looming over her, but chooses different ways of expressing her frustration with her impending doom.
I don't care that Rayon is a fictionalised, composite character, because Rayon is the heart and soul of the film. The rest, while cogent and well done, is process, it's about how Ron did this and how Ron did that. Rayon is the Marc Bolan-adoring, surreal, languid and earthy diva whose love for the people around her, including and especially Ron (eternally verbally abused for it though she is) shines through. I thought it was an even better performance than McConaughey's, and I'd be happy and relieved if both of them picked up awards for their roles if they both didn't feel the need to say stuff distancing themselves from the trans, gay and lesbian communities as if they were worried people would think they were too gay-sympathetic. I mean, jeez, guys, this isn't high school anymore.
It's a complicated, and still fraught landscape in which a film like this comes out in. It's a flick about a touchy topic, since there's a lot of blame to be laid on who did or didn't do necessary stuff and why. It's too simplistic in its demonisation of the FDA, which acts on screen like a brutal army of stormtroopers, when in reality it's just a benign and slow bureaucracy trying to prevent quack cures or harmful medicines that haven't been adequately tested from killing too many people. When con artists or unscrupulous types try to hustle desperate people into buying bullshit snake oil cures, it's the FDA that cracks down on them, and so it bloody well should.
It's unlikely the entire organisation was out to kill Ron Woodroof because they thought he had the gay plague and deserved to die, as is implied, but I guess every flick needs its villain, because our heroes need someone to strive against and overcome. Or not.
This is a really strong film regardless. It's pretty cheap looking, but that didn't matter at all. McConaughey gives a powerhouse, messy performance that doesn't pander to the audience, though it's probably pandering to the Academy. Leto gives the flick some balance and some heartache. Jennifer Garner is also okay in it, for once, and probably resented, since she usually looks like a skeleton with inflated lips, being the fattest person in the movie.
How will she live it down... It's a good film, but it ain't easy
8 times Ron and Rayon should have been sitting in a tree, K.I.S.S.I.N.G out of 10
"Let me give y'all a little news flash. There ain't nothin' out there can kill fuckin' Ron Woodroof in 30 days." - for all his faults, he's goddamn right - Dallas Buyers Club