Starts February 6, 2014
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writing credits: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O'Hare, Dallas Roberts, Kevin Rankin, Griffin Dunne, Michael O'Neill, Lawrence Turner, Steve Zahn
Length: 117 minutes
Screenwriter Craig Borten’s interviews with the HIV+ alternative-treatment advocate Ron Woodroof in Dallas in August, 1992 culminated with over 20-hours on tape and access to Ron’s personal diaries a month before Ron died. Believing it would make a great film Borton began pitching his screenplay in 1996. In 2000 screenwriter Melisa Wallack came onboard. When director Jean-Marc Vallée and Matthew McConaughey were signed producers green-lighted the project. McConaughey plays the charismatic Ron whose passions included rodeo, sex, coke, alcohol, chain-smoking, and gambling while working as an electrician to support his vices. A racist, homophobic redneck when diagnosed in 1985, Ron is also an intelligent risk-taking fighter. Ron rejects the expensive pharmaceutical Azidothymidin (AZT)—cost more than $10,000/year, researches, finds and procures alternatives, i.e. FDA unapproved, and eventually takes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to court.
The script is strong, with subtleties and composites throughout. Jared Leto as the divine transgender Rayon and Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks roles are fictitious symbolizing the gay community Ron scorned, to later embrace and help. Watch for: the link between Rayon and Eve; an empty chair when Tucker (Zahn) helps Ron; the sombrero; Ron’s realization of being infected, et al. As a native Texan McConaughey captures the maverick persona—he lost 23 kg (50 pounds) for the role; Leto lost more than 14 kg (30 pounds). The entire cast is outstanding.
Shot in 25 days for under $5 million, Vallée challenged Canadian cinematographer Yves Bélanger and crew to use available lighting and handheld digital cameras. Production designer John Paino’s sets were straightforward for multi-use. Martin Pensa and Vallée’s editing concentrate on retaining the “strong POV of the lead character” and one-shot takes. The minimal special effects (SFX) transform New Orleans, Louisiana into Dallas, Texas—filmmaking is all about illusions. Initially given a month to live—“Ain’t nothing out there that can kill Ron Woodroof in thirty days”—he was right-on, living 2,557 days after being diagnosed. An excellent follow-up to this socially significant, uplifting film would be the documentary Fire in the Blood should it ever obtain the theatrical release it deserves. (See review on the AWC website under Articles > Film Festivals 2013 > Hamburg Filmfest 2013 > Reality on Our Doorstep article.) ( )
I tend to hate films that pull at our politically-correct heartstrings in a contrived, sappy Hollywood way, and leave me feeling insulted and manipulated. Dallas Buyers Club isn’t like that.
This the true story of Ron Woodroof, a womanizing, hard-partying, homophobic bull rider who is diagnosed with AIDS and told he has 30 days left to live. After a few bouts of denial and despair, his defiance and stubbornness win out and he decides to fight the disease. With most drugs in the early ‘80s still experimental and unavailable in the U.S., Ron begins searching for alternatives in Mexico and it occurs to him that he might have stumbled on a business opportunity. His homophobia alienates him from his largest market however, the gay community, so he enlists the help of a transsexual he meets in the hospital who also has AIDS. Together they form the Dallas Buyers Club, where members can get drugs for free if they pay a $400 per month membership fee, allowing them to circumvent legal issues. While struggling to survive, they find themselves fighting for the lives of others.
During the first few minutes of this film I have to admit I was completely distracted, and thoroughly disturbed, by the physical transformation that Matthew McConaughey went through for his starring role as Ron Woodroof. He lost a reported 50 pounds and he looks so emaciated and hollow, he was nearly unrecognizable. It didn’t take long though before I found myself forgetting the actor, totally enthralled by the character. This is the best acting he has ever done.
Jared Leto (who recently visited Hamburg with his band “30 Seconds to Mars”, and whose image has covered the walls of my daughter’s bedroom ever since), also made a startling physical transformation, dropping 30 pounds for his role as Rayon. It would have been easy to play this character over-the-top, but instead Leto brings a mixture of grace, humor and compassion, with a sense of self-loathing and tragedy that is thoroughly beautiful and convincing. I would be shocked if he didn’t get an Oscar nomination.
Yes, the story contains a lot of predictable moral lessons as Ron fights to survive another seven years longer than doctors predicted, while making the transition from egoist to hero, learning tolerance and compassion along the way. What I most appreciate about this film though, is that director Jean-Marc Valle doesn’t overplay those lessons or shove them in your face. There is no sappy moment of contrived realization, with a close-up and dramatic music. Instead, you notice the internal changes subtly manifested in Ron’s actions and his dealings with others, including Rayon. The effect is more powerful and stays with you longer, making it a truly great film.