Friday, November 15, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club: A smart investment

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, strong sexual content, nudity and drug use

By Derrick Bang

Some heroes are born. Others are made.

Kicking, screaming, scratching and spitting every step of the way.

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey, right) initially reacts with knee-jerk contempt
when the cross-dressing Rayon (Jared Leto) offers to help establish a rather unusual
business model. Soon, though, "just business" grows into something a great deal
more profound.
Ron Woodroof’s unexpected saga wasn’t nearly as poetic or dramatically mesmerizing as is suggested in Jean-Marc Vallée’s new film, Dallas Buyers Club, but there’s no doubt that the real-life Woodroof was an unlikely champion for the disenfranchised, much the way Oskar Schindler found his calling during World War II.

Texas born-and-bred Woodroof was a hard-living, harder-drinking electrical contractor when he was blindsided by an HIV diagnosis in 1986, and given sixth months to live. (Vallée’s film shifts this life-changing moment to 1985, to tie the unfolding drama to Rock Hudson’s announcement, that July, that he had AIDS.)

Not one to blithely accept a death sentence, Woodroof went into the research tank and emerged a year later to found what became known as the Dallas Buyers Club: an underground source of drugs not approved by the FDA for use in the United States ... but, in many cases, legal in other countries and known to be helpful for HIV-positive patients, and those with full-blown AIDS.

Woodroof’s story, and the Dallas Buyers Club, were profiled in Bill Minutaglio’s compelling article in Dallas Life Magazine, published on Aug. 9, 1992. Woodroof died not quite a month later, on Sept. 12. During the seven years he ran his guerrilla drug network, there’s no question he helped prolong the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of desperately ill people ... just as he prolonged his own life.

Interesting, then, that we’ve waited two full decades for a film to be made about this feisty, foul-mouthed, oddly charismatic Texas renegade.

Vallée’s film is powered by a galvanic performance from Matthew McConaughey, who notoriously dropped 47 pounds in order to convincingly play the emaciated Woodroof. That’s obviously a drastic move, but it certainly lends considerable verisimilitude to what we see onscreen, just as Christian Bale’s similar weight-loss routine brought jaw-dropping realism to his portrayal of crack-addicted Dicky Eklund, in The Fighter.

But the intensity of McConaughey’s performance here derives from a great deal more than his painfully thin frame; he charges through this role with a level of desperation that matches his character’s angry struggle to stay alive. And anger is the right word, because Woodroof quickly comes to believe that the U.S. medical establishment is, at best, moving much too slowly to battle a disease primarily killing the nation’s “expendables”; or, at worst, actively conspiring with Big Pharma to develop and deliver piecemeal treatment in a manner designed solely to maximize profits.

Minutaglio allowed Woodroof to air such views in the Dallas Life article; scripters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack run with that notion, making it the Big Enemy that fuels the rage which, in great part, also keeps Woodroof alive. McConaughey is impressive at every extreme, whether railing against the intransient U.S. establishment — personified here by patronizing FDA agent Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill) — or turning on the charm when in the incandescent glow of a sympathetic doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner, in a role that is a composite of several helpful, real-life individuals).

This film’s press notes are careful to mention that Borten and Wallack’s screenplay is “inspired by” true events, and therefore not above shading for the sake of crowd-pleasing heft. Thus, McConaughey’s Woodroof is introduced as a sexually promiscuous, good ol’ boy Texas homophobe; his reaction to hearing the dread diagnosis, as delivered by Eve’s self-righteous boss, Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare), is to disbelieve it entirely.

I’m not like that, Woodroof insists; the blood work must’ve been mixed up.

But he cannot overlook his rapidly declining health, his weight loss, and the waves of crippling mental confusion and agonizing joint and muscle aches. Reluctantly acknowledging the inevitable, he conspires to obtain an illicit supply of AZT — unwilling to chance becoming one of the placebo-ingesting control patients in the study at the hospital where Eve and Sevard work — and starts dosing himself.

The results are far less than favorable, because the initial AZT dosage recommendations were much too high. Given a name and address in Mexico, Woodroof stumbles his way into a clinic run by expat Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), presented here as an all-knowing “AIDS guru” with a savvy understanding of which drugs help, and which don’t.

Vass is an Obi-Wan Kenobi character, far larger than life and depicted with a mildly humorous undertone, but Dunne pulls it off; this is the guy you’d want in your corner.

More to the point, Vass is willing to franchise. And Woodroof, with McConaughey’s feral gaze smelling opportunity as well as personal salvation, jumps at the chance.

What follows is a captivating blend of fact and scripted fancy. Woodroof really did smuggle drugs across the Mexican border hundreds of times, often using a legal pad to clock the behavior patterns of guards at the U.S. Checkpoint. He’d dress as a priest or a doctor, his wide Texas grin and affable manner often carrying the day.

Hell, this film leaves out some of Woodroof’s best adventures, such as a buying spree in Japan that climaxed when he packed 36 vials of interferon into a briefcase filled with dry ice, only to discover that condensation was forming on the outside of the case as he approached the Japanese customs agents.

The point this film makes repeatedly — always at McConaughey’s passionate best — is that Woodroof's drugs aren’t illegal, merely unapproved ... and, as such (in his view), not subject to seizure no matter what the circumstances. Things weren’t that simplistic in real life, of course, given the genuine concerns associated with people who self-medicated using unlicensed and often untested drugs.

Really, though — and this is the moral bottom line — it’s difficult to mount that argument with an individual suffering from a disease carrying an impending death sentence, and a painful one. If this film’s establishment totems — Barkley and Sevard — come off as callous jerks, it’s undoubtedly because early AIDS patients confronted scores of condescending idiots just like them.

And because O’Hare and O’Neill do such a fine job of making us loathe them.

Woodroof’s increasingly stubborn, rage-against-the-establishment quest notwithstanding, this film’s primary dramatic heft comes from his relationship with Rayon (Jared Leto), a high-spirited, cross-dressing AIDS patient. Rayon is a wholly fictitious character, fabricated to grant McConaughey’s Woodroof a journey of the soul: from contemptuous homophobe to compassionate caregiver.

Like McConaughey, Leto fasted in order to play this part, dropping to a clearly unhealthy 116 pounds. His character is an archetype intended to depict the ghastly reality of the LGBT community in 1980s Texas: an unpleasantly judgmental atmosphere conveyed, early on, by the back-slapping buddies who suddenly drop Woodroof like a hot coal, once his diagnosis becomes public.

Leto’s Rayon is as mesmerizing as McConaughey’s Woodroof, albeit from an entirely different universe. It’s difficult to imagine two more mismatched individuals, and Woodroof's initially hostile contempt, and his brutal censure, feel like body blows: painful enough to make us wince. The pain flickers through Leto’s eyes, but Rayon persists, seeing something promising — as always happens in well-constructed stories of this nature — in this hot-headed cowboy.

The resulting partnership begins as an alliance of convenience, but soon blossoms. A moment arrives when, as the saying goes, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

Despite the iconic status granted Woodroof and Rayon in this film, it’s important to recognize that both are deeply flawed: the former for his initially opportunistic, sex-and-cocaine-fueled lifestyle; the latter because he’s a helpless junkie. That we come to admire both men speaks well of Vallée’s sensitive touch, and of the finely shaded performances he draws from his stars.

The real Woodroof no doubt would have enjoyed the way Texas-born McConaughey portrays him in this film. And, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter if Vallée, Borten and Wallack have exaggerated Woodroof’s virtues in order to concoct a more powerful underdog story. Even documentaries shade their subjects, while making a statement.

Woodroof deserves his status as a blister on the hidebound American political machine that waited so long to move aggressively on AIDS research, and this film is just the means by which he should, at last, be remembered as a counter-culture champion.

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