14 December, 2013

Review: "Dallas Buyers Club" (****)

Matthew McConaughey is Ron Woodroof in "Dallas Buyers Club"

“Dallas Buyers Club” is decking the halls with boughs of Oscar buzz. The 2014 Golden Globe nominations paved the way, including Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nods for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, who star in Craig Borten’s first produced screenplay. Directed by Jean-Marc Valée (“The Young Victoria,” “Café de Flore”), “Dallas Buyers Club” tells the true story of Ron Woodroof, a Texan electrician and rodeo gambler who tests positive for HIV in 1985. When denial of his rapidly worsening condition becomes refusal to die on schedule, Ron seeks alternative treatment.

At first dependent on illegally-acquired azidothymidine (AZT), an FDA-approved AIDS medication tested only on approved trial participants, Ron notices his health deteriorating. He resorts to Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), an American doctor practicing in Mexico, who divulges that AZT at its common dosage is actually harming recipients. He prescribes a combination of vitamins and proteins that he claims, though unapproved, will slow HIV’s replication. Ron transports thousands of doses back to America and, after learning of medication-dealing rings that offer HIV treatment for a monthly membership fee, creates the Dallas Buyers Club. Jared Leto plays Ron’s business partner, Rayon—an ever-glamorous AZT trial participant, born “Raymond,” whom Ron meets while in Eve’s (Jennifer Garner) hospital care. Together they navigate their controversial business, a dehumanizing disease, and the combined effects on their fragile lives and unexpected friendship.

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club"
The story alone defends its place in Hollywood, but it’s the performances that anchor “Dallas Buyers Club” in the league of Academy Awards. McConaughey, Leto, and Garner assume the roles of their careers. McConaughey sacrifices his usual heartthrob stature so completely that you hope Ron’s medication will nurse McConaughey back to health as well. What he lacks in waistline he makes up for with characteristic charisma and determination—two traits that erase any room for an alternative casting decision.  And as though one metamorphic portrayal weren't enough, the film one-ups itself, and Leto takes the screen. He is visibly and audibly transformed; his endearingly comic grace and delicate courage determine the film’s most affecting character. Conversely, Eve doesn’t alter Garner so much as embody her. Garner at once fills Eve with acute affection and commanding integrity. Only Garner could violently plunge a hammer into drywall or defiantly curse her superiors in such a way that begs you hug her immediately. When Eve’s fondness for Ron and Rayon challenges her imperative to heal others, she finds herself walking the line between what she works for and what she believes in.

Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner in "Dallas Buyers Club"
Cinematically, “Dallas Buyers Club” is less consistent. With this production, Director of Photography Yves Bélanger completes his first American film—all while compliant with an uncommon Director request: use no artificial lighting. Valée first employed this method with his French film “Café de Flore” and applied the technique to Borten’s true story in efforts to achieve a documentary-style reality. This practice proves successful despite the occasional use of what seems to be stock footage of montage-ready air travel. The distraction is forgiven with thanks to a star scene or two that are sure to give you, well, butterflies.

Shot entirely on location in New Orleans and set to music performed by Shuggie Otis, Neon Trees, T. Rex, Leto’s own Thirty Seconds to Mars, and others, “Dallas Buyers Club” offers membership to an experience worth having. Valée’s vision, Bélanger’s execution, and Borten’s characters comprise a triumphant but heartrending cocktail of what it looks like to trade presumption for compassion; the result invites you to suspend, if only for a little while, the disbelief that the fight for survival never ends.

4 out of 5 stars.

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