“Dallas Buyers Club” Sells Out

Reviews Dallas Buyers Club

Published on December 3rd, 2013 | by Wheeler Winston Dixon


 Grade: B

“Dallas Buyers Club” is now showing in theaters nationwide.

Running time: 117 minutes; Rated R
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Matthew McConaughey is an excellent actor, and Lord knows he’s working enough these days, and he brings real fire and presence to every role he attacks. But with the exception of Steven Soderbergh’s criminally underrated “Magic Mike,” McConaughey’s films often don’t live up to their initial promise. Such is the case with McConaughey’s latest film, “Dallas Buyers Club,” based on a true story, and indifferently directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. The source material is absolutely solid; homophobic good ol’ boy Ron Woodroof lives a non-stop lifestyle of booze, coke, cigarettes, and rodeo riding, until he discovers that he’s HIV positive after a trip to the hospital.

Initially indignant, and given 30 days to live by his doctors, Woodruff sets out on a one man crusade to prove them wrong, smuggling unapproved drugs into the States as a “Buyers Club,” and befriending numerous members of the gay community in the process, in particular the flamboyant Rayon (Jared Leto in a standout performance), as he battles against the ravages of the disease and confounds the medical establishment. Eventually, the sympathetic Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) comes around to Woodruff’s way of thinking, and sacrifices her career when she realizes that conventional treatments against HIV/AIDS are far from effective; indeed, they may well be lethal.

With his rodeo pals deserting him, and the future far from certain, Woodruff manages to hang on for another seven years through a variety of off-the-menu drug cocktails, many of which he obtains while traveling in Mexico from the disgraced Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne, looking an awful lot like Jerry Garcia in his last years). The first 45 minutes of the film are riveting, but by the end, the nascent love affair between Dr. Zaks and Woodruff (as conveyed by a series of longing gazes) overwhelms the film, which ends with a conventional courtroom decision upholding the established order, and Woodruff’s off-screen death, announced in an after-title.

Looking at McConaughey’s newer films, you can see that he’s taking real risks; we’re a long, long way from Mark Waters’s “The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” here, which is a good thing. But each seemingly offbeat film McConaughey now makes seems to have some sort of inherent flaw in its construction, even as it seemingly departs from conventional multiplex fare. McConaughey’s turn in Richard Linklater’s excellent “Bernie” as law officer Danny Buck is a solid piece of work, but for a man of McConaughey’s talents, it’s practically sleepwalking; in any event, it’s really Jack Black’s film, in the title role, and a great performance at that.

In William Friedkin’s much overrated “Killer Joe” McConaughey knocks it out of the park as the title character, Killer Joe Cooper, even as the script’s ridiculously overheated sex scenes push the film into parody; as Ward Jansen in Lee Daniels’s delirious “The Paperboy,” McConaughey is equally superb, but is overwhelmed by the film’s no-holds-barred narrative; while Jeff Nichols’s “Mud” is an earnest after school special, which McConaughey strolls through without breaking a sweat.

McConaughey has yet to make the real breakthrough film that will really establish him as a major presence on the screen; a role that isn’t so much about violence, or brutality, or breaking taboos, or the sentimental molasses of “Mud.” I honestly don’t know what that film will be, but I do know this: McConaughey is a superb actor, at the top of his game, taking on risky projects. I hope that he takes on more in the future, and that, in the final reels, they don’t succumb to the supposed demand of audience expectations. Sadly, “Dallas Buyers Club” is a film that ultimately fails itself, even as its star continues to shine.

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About the Author

is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, and Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His most recent book is "Cinema at the Margins" (Anthem Press, 2013).

One Response to “Dallas Buyers Club” Sells Out

  1. Brette R. says:

    As far as my taste in movies is concerned, I tend not to be very interested in the roles Mr. McConaughey “attacks.” Consider: How to Lose a Guy in 10 days, Failure to Launch– although I have a hard time not liking his Dazed and Confused lines, and purely carnal characterization of life in a Texas town. I concede I have not seen any of his latest Oscar Offerings. (And judging by the previews I watched, Christian Bale is also hungry for a statue.)
    I was stricken for the entire film, though I do agree it is a bit long, and could stand to lose a little shake. Every single actor in that film was remarkable. I especially was moved by the juxtaposition between survival and death.
    I think it is a highly problematic film, and perhaps a bit myopic, but it was the first time in a long time I haven’t felt emotionally manipulated by a film in which I am meant to find searing tragedy yet also enjoyment. The uncomfortable subject matter makes it difficult to handle. Although at this point, Cinema is in enjoying a wonderfully sex-positive dialogue with LGBTQ, I think it horrific that the treatment of a horrible sickness (which the nation as a whole has only recently begun to handle well considering this movie takes place a mere 26 years ago) is left up to the business men who want bottom lines, not disease control.
    True stories being what they are, it is hard to fabricate an enjoyable experience out of this truth, and I can forgive Vallée’s clumsiness here and there because on the whole, it was a powerful dose of challenging, yet mainstream cinema.
    If nothing else, the movie gave McConaughey, Leto, and Garner the opportunity to show some beautifully bone-structured bare talent. Bravo all the same.

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