Sunday, February 16, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) ****

For my generation, who came of age in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, the AIDS epidemic was a defining event.  Right at the moment when we became aware of our sexuality, the whole world was becoming aware that sex could equal death.  After a few decades of apparent mastery of infectious diseases, with successful vaccines and antibiotics, the western world did not take well to a new, deadly epidemic.  Hysteria over AIDS got all mixed up with homophobia, and it was an ugly time.
It’s no little feat that the film “Dallas Buyers Club” manages to explore such an unpleasant period while maintaining a sense of humor.  Credit goes to Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto for giving their characters just enough over-the-top charm to wash down the bitter medicine of the film’s theme.
McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a hard-living oilfield roughneck and rodeo cowboy who discovers he has AIDS.  Not only do his friends and co-workers abandon him, but there was no approved treatment at the time. Ron gets black-market AZT, but the doses used then caused more problems than they fixed, and he winds up nearly dying.  He wanders down to Mexico to see a doctor who treats AIDS patients with cutting edge foreign meds and alternative treatments.  Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne) gets him feeling so much better that he convinces the doctor to sell him a carload of the meds, which he smuggles back to Dallas to sell to an eager community of AIDS patients.  One of them is a transgender woman named Rayon (Leto), who helps Ron get access to the gay community, where most of their potential customers are.  Ultimately, in order to stay one step ahead of the law, Ron and Rayon switch to selling memberships in what is essentially a medicine co-op.  Ron uses the money to travel the world smuggling unapproved meds back to Dallas.
Like many awards-season films, “Dallas Buyers Club” is a movie you probably won’t ever watch a second time, but you will be glad you saw it the one time.  If you do re-watch this, it will be because of Matthew McConaughey, who lends his inherently unsympathetic character such a life force that you can’t look away from him.  Jared Leto is perhaps less magnetic, but still mesmerizing as Rayon.  It’s a testament to how well he inhabits this woman-trapped-in-a-man’s-body that the only time he looks like he is wearing drag is when he briefly puts on a man’s suit.  Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare are more one-dimensional in thankless roles as Infectious Disease doctors, but the important people in this movie are the AIDS patients, and they knock it out of the park.
The pathos of these patients’ is heartbreaking.  Some of the emotional scenes get pretty intense, but they don’t feel like cheap sentimentality.  This movie earns its crying scenes.  We live now in a much better time for AIDS patients.  The disease is treatable, and most Westerners now understand that you can’t catch it from shaking someone’s hand or giving them a hug.  There’s a whole generation of young people now who never lived with the fear and hysteria surrounding AIDS.  “Dallas Buyers Club,” like the movie “Philadelphia,” tells an important piece of history, and hopefully we will be humbled by taking a look at where we were only a couple of decades ago.

4 stars out of 5

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