Dallas Buyers Club

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenplay:  Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare, and Steve Zahn.
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 117 min.

A clear Oscar contender, Dallas Buyers Club continues Matthew McConaughey’s recent streak of monumental roles. A moving film that focuses on the AIDS epidemic during the late 1980’s, it manages to captivate if only moderately. While it delivers some of the best performances in years from McConaughey and costar Jared Leto, it lacks a clear focus, and struggles with pacing. Though it is compelling, it doesn’t manage to carry its own weight.

Though not a biopic, the story centers on antihero Ron Woodroof. A blue collar Texan electrician, misogynist, cowboy, homophobe, and drug addict, Woodroof finds out he’s become HIV positive. Likely due to one of his many conquests, he is thrust into a world he’d never imagined he’d become a part of. Given the looming prognosis of 30 days to live, he refuses to admit defeat. “Sorry, lady,” he shouts to his physician, Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), “but I prefer to die with my boots on.” Venturing across the border for healthier alternative medication to then toxic AZT, he proceeded to bring them back to Texas in order to help others like him: the sick and dying without a shot in hell.

It’s an excellent film, but Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t seem to have a clear point. Ron Woodroof’s story is a compelling one, but this isn’t a biopic. It touches on the toxicity of AZT, the first U.S. Government approved HIV treatment, but only as a plot device. Similarly, it introduces the drug abuse and latent homophobia that ran rampant when AIDS became an epidemic, but never forms a dialogue on the matter. All of these factors come together to form a touching, and entertaining film that winds up blindly trying to hit a strong point, and ultimately missing.

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto give some of their best performances in years. While McConaughey has been on a wild streak with Mud and Killer Joe, it feels like he’s hit a small roadblock here. Woodruff still plays very comfortably into McConaughey’s wheelhouse, so there isn’t much room for him to grow.

The drastic weight loss required of the role also upped the ante. If a severe physical change is required of a role, it acts as a sort of handicap against the actor in question. It’s no longer acceptable to play at the same level of expertise. Like the incredible weight loss required of Michael Fassbender in Hunger, or the crippling posture of Cerebral Palsy that caused Daniel Day-Lewis to fracture a rib while filming My Left Foot, these physical changes overshadow the actors’ performance.

In those particular instances, the men in question rose to the occasion, giving some of the best performances of the past 50 years. Unfortunately for McConaughey, he just couldn’t compete with his emaciated frame. The shock of his stature should never overshadow the power of his performance. For him, sadly, it did.

Leto, on the other hand, lived up to his weight loss and beyond. He vanished into the role of the AIDS afflicted transsexual, Rayon, giving the single best performance of the film. His pain and torment was as palpable as his sass. In a recent interview with Jake Hamilton, Leto stated, “I was intent on playing a real human being. I think that Hollywood is full of impersonations and imitations of drag queens that are over the top, and colourful and sometimes fun and funny. So I felt like that had been covered. And I wanted to really represent [Rayon] with as much dignity as I could […].” And he succeeded. Rayon is one of the best-realized characters in the entire film, with steadily revealed history, clear motivation, and honest fear and passion.

Others fall by the wayside, like Steve Zahn (A Perfect Getaway), Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare (American Horror Story, Milk). Zahn as Woodroof’s convenient police friend is, as usual, grossly underused. In spite of character development, he’s given virtually no opportunity to shine, and due to lackluster writing he’s giving limited material to work with.

Similarly, Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks is relegated to little more than a white-shoed stereotype. Though her performance is satisfactorily compassionate for the most part, she’s never given enough airtime to prove herself. Likewise, Denis O’Hare is portrayed as a tyrannical, drug-pushing boss, satisfied with playing by the rules if it means he ruffles no feathers and gets his way. O’Hare is capable of far more than he’s given, and can’t seem to get the screen time to make his mark.

While it’s a compelling film designed to pull at heartstrings, Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t entirely deliver. In spite of being a very good film, it’s still flawed. Its few standout performances aren’t enough to carry the weight of the stunted writing in order for it to become the monumentally moving picture it was supposed to be. Though not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, it simply doesn’t live up to expectations.