22 December, 2013

I saw The Dallas Buyers Club last night. What an extraordinary, compelling, thought-provoking piece of movie-making!

The film is inspired by the true story of Ron Woodruff, a good old boy from Texas… a hard living, drinking, drugging and partying raging heterosexual electrician and rodeo cowboy who, after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and given 30 days to live began a battle to take (and to supply others with) drugs that were being successfully used in other countries to combat the disease, but which the FDA had not approved. It has an unflinching script, exquisite direction and beautiful, subtle, exciting performances by its entire cast headed by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. McConoughey and Leto (obviously with the help of director Jean-Marc Vallée) avoid every trap of sentimentality. There’s no grandstanding here (and God knows there easily could have been), no “look at me, I’m acting!” – just honest, characters. McConaughey, the writers and director never allow Ron to become a saint, instead we get a complex, complicated human being, alternately comic, loveable, heart-wrenching, exasperating and infuriating, but always real. The same is true for Jared Leto. The scene in which he (as Rayon, a transgender drug addict dying of AIDS) visits his staid, Dallas banker father should be required viewing for actors, directors and screenwriters for the way it avoids every cliché and forces the audience to not just watch, but be an active participant in the raw, uncomfortable emotional life of these two people. Contrast what they and McConaughey do with what Meryl Streep does in August: Osage County and you get a master class in why flawless technique is not enough… a truly great performance (like any great work of art) is one that draws the viewer in and doesn’t allow her or him the distance to comment on how wonderful it is until afterwards.

Much has been written about the amount of weight McConaughey and Leto dropped to play these roles. Rarely, if ever, has the emaciation that AIDS (or late stage cancer, for that matter) creates been so vividly, accurately, painfully shown. There are moments when it is excruciating to look at these two men; their wasting made even more unsettling because we enter the theatre with mental images of the two actors as buff, handsome hunks. It perfectly mirrors the experience of seeing a loved one we’ve known for years stricken. But it’s not just about the weight loss. It’s about the way the two actors change their physical presence… their walk, their posture. Credit must also be given to the amazingly subtle work of the makeup department and costume designer that aid the actors in their transformation… pay attention to both actors’ skin as well as (in the last scenes) the face of the older, wealthy man who with his partner gave Ron a house to use as his headquarters.

I’m guessing The Dallas Buyers Club is far from an easy sell.  The story of Ron Woodruff, Rayon and a bunch of other HIV and AIDS infected people battling the FDA for the right to take, if not life-saving drugs, then certainly life-extending ones is not exactly the stuff of mainstream entertainment. I’m also guessing that “AIDS activist” who becomes pals with a transgender patient and a whole lot of gay men, while never being more than friends with the beautiful Jennifer Garner (a doctor), is not exactly the role McConaughey’s fan base (whatever that is) wants to rush to see.

Focus Films seems to be pushing the movie as an uplifting, emotional story of one man’s battle with both a disease and the system. As it garners awards and nominations they are also positioning it as an “important” movie. And all of that’s true. But it’s also a great populist/activist movie. Set in those early days of the AIDS epidemic when doctors and scientists around the world were racing to discover if not a cure, then at least a viable treatment, it is an exploration of how our government (through the FDA) was so beholden to the interests of big business (the pharmaceutical industry) that despite evidence that there were drugs being used in other countries that were proving more effective than the FDA-approved AZT, and that AZT at the dosage promoted by the drug company and the FDA was probably doing more harm than good, U.S. law would not allow patients a choice.

The Dallas Buyers Club is a movie that forces its audience to ask, “In the name of oversight and protecting the public, at what point did our government start to consider the physical health, welfare and rights of citizens less important than the financial health and welfare of corporations?”

The movie, subversively, provocatively, lives in the spot where the stated platforms of Progressives and the Occupy Movement intersects with the stated mission of the Tea Party and Libertarians… put citizens above corporations and limit government’s control over our private lives.  Common ground.

Ron Woodruff, a homophobic Texas redneck, managed (with time and work) to put aside his prejudices and preconceptions to work with gays and transsexuals for his and their common good. Perhaps The Dallas Buyers Club can inspire another Ron Woodruff to emerge, from either the left or the right… someone who can convince our extremes to explore and focus on their common ground.

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