Best Picture Odyssey: “Dallas Buyers Club”

Well, this isn’t a great way to kick off the series. I wish I could begin with a more positive review, but I have a lot of things to say about this film so I might as well get them out now. Dallas Buyers Club is an atrocious movie. It’s the kind of film where it seems like everyone involved was completely half-assing it. Even the title card and the subtitles appear to be in the default font from some editing software. The script is stiff and artificial, the directing is soulless and purposeless, and almost all the actors are on auto-pilot. Save for one, of course.

Okay, I’ll start with something a bit more favorable. Matthew McConaughey gives a phenomenal performance here as Ron Woodroof, a stock Texan stereotype who has a seeming obsession with homophobia (we’ll get to this more when we talk about the script.) He seems to spend all his free time either drinking, screwing, or snorting cocaine. Woodroof is diagnosed with HIV, and since it’s 1985, his friends ostracize him because they think he’s gay. Even in those early scenes, McConaughey is firing on all cylinders. Woodroof gets written in a lot of different ways, but he manages to pull them together in a semi-coherent way. He displays a wide, complex range of emotions and behaviors. Now, do these emotions and behaviors go together logically, or belong in a single character? Would the guy who uses the term “sand-n****rs” in one scene go out of his way to help an illegal Latino worker in the very next? Absolutely not. But McConaughey makes it work. In other words, any problems with Woodroof’s character are the fault of the screenwriter and not him. Even putting aside the dramatic weight loss that the role required, that character is written so schizophrenically that it must have been difficult to nail him down. Well, McConaughey got it done. The script wants you to think that Woodroof is a complex guy, but it’s McConaughey who makes you believe it.

Now that that’s out of the way, onto the bad stuff. AKA all the other stuff. That might sound like hyperbole, but it really isn’t. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a non-McConaughey aspect of this movie that I thought really worked. Most of the other actors aren’t really bringing it. Jennifer Garner gives a really subtle, interesting performance. In one scene, that is. Outside of that, she’s unremarkble at best and kind of grating at worst. Jared Leto is getting tons of raves and even more awards for his role as the transvestite Rayon who Woodroof befriends, but he has almost nothing to do. The entire role is in the makeup and the clothes that the character wears. Those are the only important or significant things about that character. Even if Leto was the greatest actor alive, what was he supposed to do? He does pretty much all he can, and it’s not a terrible performance or anything, but the fact that Rayon is so one-dimensional means that Leto’s performance can’t be much better than that. At least Woodroof has distinct personality traits for McConaughey to work from. Rayon’s entire persona essentially boils down to “sassy.” Well, Leto is sassy, I guess. But who cares?

Rayon is actually one of the weakest aspects of the film, and the one thing about it that angered me more than anything else. Woodroof starts out, as mentioned, a raging homophobe. The script takes care to pound us over the head with this in the first couple scenes and beyond. Seriously, he doesn’t go three minutes without calling someone a “faggot” in the beginning. But don’t worry, they throw in the aforementioned scene where he shows compassion towards an illegal co-worker so that you don’t hate him too much. Anyway, Rayon shows up and they immediately hate each other. Woodroof expresses this through uncomfortableness and more bigotry. Rayon expresses this through sass and more sass. So, because they hate each other at the beginning, of course they end up going into business together, creating an organization that helps HIV/AIDS-afflicted people get experimental drugs from other countries that the FDA won’t approve. Why is Rayon in this movie? To teach Woodroof a lesson about acceptance and tolerance, of course. The problem is that that’s the only reason why Rayon is in this movie. She’s a prop to be used by Woodroof and a tragic hero to get an emotional reaction out of the audience. That’s it. Rayon is entirely defined by her reactions to Woodroof. There’s almost nothing else going on with the character. I found this to be astoundingly misguided. This is, after all, a movie about the AIDS epidemic that focuses on how hard it is on a straight man. This isn’t to suggest that straight people weren’t affected, or that AIDS is a “gay disease.” However, it feels kind of slimy to use a crisis which primarily affected gay men in order to tell a story where a straight man learns a life lesson. And not only that, but to have the film’s primary gay character be used solely as a plot device to help the straight character on his journey. Not to mention the whole, “Thank god for that heterosexual guy, who is the savior of all the gay people.” I know that some people won’t take issue with this, and that disagreeing with a film’s social or political ideas shouldn’t affect one’s view on its artistic value, but the film’s insistence on being a “message movie” about the evils of bigotry while at the same time completely ignoring the people who the bigotry was focused on really rubbed me the wrong way.

It’s a film that seems to think it’s something that it isn’t, or it wants you to think that. It feels as though it someone watched a bunch of similar movies and then took the broad beats and tropes and threw them all together without any understanding of how they connect to the story being told. Woodroof’s character is a good example. He isn’t a complex character, but the script thinks that writing him practically as a different person in each scene makes him into one. Even though many of those different “people” contradict one another. He’s a smart-ass, no, he’s a loose cannon. He’s a racist, no, he’s compassionate. He’s not very bright, no, he’s incredibly clever. Again, McConaughey manages to pull it together, but that doesn’t mean that Woodroof isn’t still a terribly-written character. The film seems to have no interest in his personal growth, for some reason. His entire character arc is about becoming not-homophobic, and it’s completed about 40 minutes into the movie. After that, he doesn’t change or develop in any way. Again, it feels like something that got thrown in just to force some themes into the film. In real life, Woodroof was apparently bisexual, so this fictionalization of him is far less interesting than the real-life person.

Dallas Buyers Club is ostensibly about Woodroof’s fight against the FDA, whose corruption prevented possible AIDS treatments from getting to the people who needed them. It’s a complex issue, and neither side is totally right or wrong. You wouldn’t know that from watching this film, though. Once Woodroof’s character arc is complete, he’s practically a saint. Even the homophobic remarks he continues to make are laughed off and ignored by everyone around him. Meanwhile, the FDA is full of nothing but corrupt bureaucrats who pass laws meant specifically to target poor little Ron Woodroof and his innocent Club. Now, maybe you weren’t aware of the FDA’s shady dealings with pharmaceutical companies. The movie assumes that you probably aren’t. So in order to make sure you understand the issue, it paints both sides with the broadest brush on the face of the Earth. The government agents we meet never act overtly evil, but their interactions with Woodroof always end up with them looking like bullies and him looking like a hero. Someone will probably argue that the film is fair to both sides, but I highly disagree. The filmmakers didn’t want you to make up your own mind. They wanted you to learn about how great Ron Woodroof was and how awful the FDA was to him. It’s so disappointing to see a film squander an opportunity to introduce moral complexities in favor of a spoon-fed “good guy v. bad guy” narrative.

The film itself is awkwardly put together, like the director is stacking Lego blocks on top of each other. You can practically see the notecards on the wall. As a whole, the film feels really stiff and manufactured. In every single scene, there’s no reason given why we’re being shown what we are outside of standard plot development. There are seemingly arbitrary time-skips throughout, and it comes across as a total cheat. Instead of writing about things that happened during a six-month period, perhaps including character details or development. No, instead we just skip ahead to the next relevant plot beat. It’s insanely boring, especially considering that the plot is so repetitive. There’s a good 45-minute stretch of the film where absolutely nothing happens and nothing about the characters is revealed or developed. The movie just starts spinning its wheels. And the ending is so abrupt that for a minute I thought I had briefly blacked out in the theater. The place that the story chooses to end is bizarrely arbitrary, and everything wraps up so fast that I wasn’t even sure what had actually happened. And then a title card pops up, informing us of what happened next. I have no idea why they didn’t just show it. The climax of the film isn’t built to, and it isn’t satisfying. The plot’s throughline had a specific endgame, and they chose to give it a title card instead of, you know, actually filming it. Dallas Buyers Club feels like it was edited together from the scraps of a better version of itself. As if these are the deleted scenes, and the real movie exists in some alternate dimension. If you didn’t have enough story for a 2-hour movie, why did you deliberately make one?

Beyond that, why would you make this movie if you didn’t have anything to say? The story, whether or not it deserved to be told, is ripe for exploration. Focus on Woodroof’s isolation, and how he finds solidarity with a community he once rejected. Focus on his transformation from drug dealer to social activist, and what brought about that change in motivation. Focus on the political corruption that took place behind closed doors at the FDA. For god’s sake, focus on something. All of this seems to be happening in the background, or off-screen. The film wants to be about everything, and it ends up being about nothing. It’s such a rote, paint-by-numbers adaptation. It feels as though it was directed by a robot, evenly placing scenes in place with no variation or introspection. The film has a plot, but it has no story. The filmmakers failed completely to draw anything interesting out of the material. It’s an aimless movie, an empty movie, a nothing movie. And you know what the worst part is?

It’s not the only Best Picture nominee this year that earns that description. But we’ll get to that in next week’s installment.

Next Week: 1/25

AMERICAN HUSTLE

Stay tuned…

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Josh Rosenfield

Josh Rosenfield is a Film Media major at the University of Rhode Island. He has been writing Popcorn Culture since 2010.

3 thoughts on “Best Picture Odyssey: “Dallas Buyers Club””

  1. Nice review. I think I liked it a little more than you, but I agree that outside of the two, everyone else was just there. It was tonally inconsistent at times, and the editing was ehh but I think a part of that is due to lack of cash.

    I didn’t think it was amazing but it deserved a solid B.

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