The problem with Oscar movies is that they are incredibly hyped up by virtue of critical acclaim, and then, if the movie isn’t quite as great as the nominations imply, that can be devastating to how the viewer takes the movie. This wasn’t so much an issue with, say, Gravity or 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle, or even Her, because those movies worked hard for their acclaim and earner it all, but it was a problem for…
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
The Plot: After being diagnosed with AIDS and told he has thirty days to live, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) investigates any and all drugs (legal or otherwise) that will improve his condition. Surviving past the anticipated time, he takes to smuggling drugs into Dallas and selling them to other people with AIDS. Despite his initial homophobia, he joins forces with wily transgender Rayon (Jared Leto), and opens up the titular Dallas Buyers Club, battling both AIDS and the antagonistic FDA.
To start, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both give really excellent performances. They earned their nominations, but given the competition this year, I don’t think either of them deserves to win. Of course, it wouldn’t be particularly PC to favor a cruel slave owner over a debilitated transgender, but let’s face it, Michael Fassbender just gave a better performance in 12 Years a Slave. The point is, both Ron and Rayon are very easy characters to understand. The performances are layered and the actors do what they can, but neither of them are particularly well written. Though Ron’s gradual development past homophobia is nicely handled, his overall arc is pretty straight-forward. He knows what he needs to do and he does it, and until near the end of the film, his motivations are primarily selfish. First, he acts only to treat himself, and then only to profit; he’s perfectly happy to turn away customers who can’t afford his product.
Despite this, the audience is expected to like him throughout. He is likable, but I think only because McConaughey makes him so, not because he was written that way. Both he and Rayon have a few arbitrary flaws tossed into the mix in an effort to make them interesting, but the attempt is not sufficient. Ron’s homophobic and does drugs. Rayon… does drugs. Ooh. Depth. Maybe that’s why McConaughey and Leto are both frontrunners for the Oscars: because they did phenomenal work with lackluster material.
The script also relies far too heavily on fainting. That’s a weird complaint, and certainly not one that I have to make very often, but it’s a problem for this film. Ron loses consciousness so many times. The first time is important to demonstrate his sickness; the second time is important to diagnose his sickness, but every time after that is just redundant, the action loses its impact, and it just becomes a device to move the plot forward. Each time is accompanied with an overwhelming high-pitched ringing so that we know Ron can’t hear anything. This, too, becomes exhausting quickly. It’s simply one of the many places where the scripting and directing fall short of expectations.
To tell you the truth, I’m a tad disgruntled that the screenplay got nominated. Gravity, Prisoners, Mud, Inside Llewyn Davis: all of these movies deserved the nomination more than Dallas Buyers Club, and didn’t get it. The dialogue wasn’t even anything special. Worse still, it felt like a dispassionate film. A popular practice amongst filmmakers is to tell the harrowing story of a sad minority through the eyes of the majority. How many Civil Rights movies have you seen that focused on a white guy helping black people instead of black people helping themselves? A lot. This isn’t always bad, and can be done well if the relationships between the people are fully fleshed out. Glory comes to mind as a good example of how this type of thing can work. Well, Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of a straight guy with AIDS helping out gay people and making a whole lot of money along the way. It’s based on a true story, fine, but it doesn’t have anything to say about the issue. Our homophobic protagonist eventually has a change of heart and realizes that homosexuals are people too. Cool. The story focuses on struggles with AIDS in a predominantly gay community in the 1980s, and how tough that was for a straight guy. I’m not saying any of this to downplay the struggle of any straight people with AIDS. Everyone’s equal in their trials and tribulations, but Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t think so. It’s a gay story told through a straight lens. Or maybe I just completely missed the point.
This is not to say that Dallas Buyers Club is a bad movie. Despite my astoundingly negative review, I sort of liked the movie while I was watching it. I dunno. It lacked staying power. In retrospect, its numerous flaws are achingly clear. I don’t think it warranted the praise it’s been getting, and I don’t think I’m really going to remember much about it in a year. I’ll remember 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity, and Mud, and Her, and Prisoners. I won’t remember Dallas Buyers Club.