the better truth

the better truth

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

There Will Be Drugs

“Dallas Buyers Club” is a buddy film with explosive political undertones exploring class, sexuality and the pernicious overreach of government.  The central protagonist is a roughneck homophobic bigot who pairs up with a gay transvestite male prostitute.  The movie is set during the early stages of the AIDS epidemic where there were no effective treatments for the disease. Their mission is to discover a remedy that will keep them alive. This dynamic duo decide to take on the FDA, the DEA, the IRS and the established medical establishment. Goliath wins a pyrrhic victory as the two David’s are vindicated by history. Strangely the film left a uncomfortable emptiness towards the central character, played by Matthew McCounaughey. The filmmakers shaped a tale of amoral outcasts transforming into solid ‘do-gooders’ in the face of pure evil.  In the end the cartoonish characterization of the ‘enemy’ undercut the ‘goodness’ of the protagonists. The film, despite some outstanding qualities, fails to evoke the pathos appropriate for this material. We are left with a long-winded ‘wild story’; instead of a heartfelt examination of our recent past.

McCounaughey and Jared Leto deliver standout performances which are worth the price of admission. McConaughey embodies the uniquely American rage of someone whose property has be violated. One can smell the body odor as he bunches his fingers into a fist or reaches for a gun or a bottle of discount liquor. He has been invaded by a foreign virus. His friends turn against him and label him queer - akin to being a leper/pedophile in the setting of a Southern 1980s trailer park. Those white coated professionals at the hospital are marginally more helpful... but he’s not taking a death sentence lying down. They give him 30 days... he gives them the finger. Eventually he metaphorically partners with Leto whose charm overcomes McCounaughey’s visceral hatred. Leto enables McCounaughey to trade his fists for lawyers and his clunker for a Cadillac. McCounaughey becomes a genuine jet-setter and spans the globe in search of drugs to hawk in his home-grown AIDS clinic; which is run from a seedy motel.  This is all based on a actual story and it illustrates the fierce power of the American entrepreneurial spirit.  An alcoholic, sex-addict oil-rig electrician with little formal education and even less grace manages to become a quasi-legal international health clinic operator for disenfranchised male homosexuals.  The grim reaper’s blade gives us all focus. In McConaughey’s case it becomes the equivalent of Popeye’s spinach.  Our anti-hero is ‘loaded for bear’. All the private drug companies, white collar professionals and government regulators should take cover.

Prior to his contracting HIV McCounaughey’s life revolves around hookers, gambling and alcohol.  The writer/director spend an immense amount of screen time chronicling his debauchery. There is an unconvincing moment at his job where McCounaughey calls an ambulance for a immigrant worker who is caught in the mesh gears of the oil rig equipment. His co-workers are too scared being fired for exposing illegal workers on the jobsite. McCounaughey’s burst of humanity is a contrived way of convincing the audience that everything they’ve experienced up to this point merely masks someone who is concerned with social justice. This hidden ‘good guy’ rears his head again after being ostracized by his friends. There is an encounter in a super-market with one of his former wing men. McCounaughey physically forces the ex-buddy to make nice with Leto; the new transvestite side-kick. Once again these acts of goodness contrast with the hardscrabble survivor turned entrepreneur. It’s ironic that a brilliant performance would be disingenuous. Unfortunately McConaughey’s wonderful rendering of the character is saddle with a director and writer who can never fully embrace the man.  Leto’s struggles are real. He is a drug addict shamed by his family. His encounter with his respectable bank-manager father is one of the few genuine emotional notes in the film. Leto steals the movie because his character is built on struggle rather than set-piece scenes that evoke emotions that are absent in the actual protagonist. The writer/director wasted McConaughey’s talent with gratuitous, outlandish strutting; rather than a heartfelt portrayal of a disenfranchised, under-class survivor.

The filmmakers believed the outrageousness of McConaughey’s rise was the hook for the story. The opposite is true. The most fascinating aspect of his journey is his focus and ability to adopt lifestyles and allies. All his vices are exchanged for a healthy lifestyle, copious research in medical journals and an alliance with white collar businessmen of various sexual orientations. The film should have exhibited less whoring for more practice in adopting his new persona.  In coming back from Mexico after his conversion he dresses as a priest. This hints at strategizing that was never exhibited in the script. This absence also haunts his oversees journeys. How did he figure out how to get around Japanese drug export regulations?  When did he suddenly realize lawyers were preferable to bail bondsmen? The journey is bogged down in hollow encounters with one-dimensional bad guys. The portrayal of the medical community and drug companies was flat.  It might be accurate to say that the makers of AZT put profit over people’s lives. Dramatically it is more interesting to draw an equivalence between McCounaughey and the drug companies. What about HIS actions. Given his track record it seems reasonable to assume he was struggling to save his life and make money rather than being just.  The film devolves into a simplistic story of good guys with noble intentions vs. bad guys who only care about money and power. Fronting the characters who wear black hats are the two the doctors McCounaughey encounters in the hospital. The love interest, who ends up with a white hat, is uninteresting and the leading doctor is leaden.  The sundry bureaucrats were also cartoonish. The end result  is a series of forgettable stand-offs where McConaughey’s is defiant and unrealistic. Believability would have fueled empathy and a sense of discomfort about our real world heroes and villains. In the end we are left with a movie ending coupled with a movie hero.  The audience is left in the small world of the big screen. This story should have provoked thoughts about our contemporary American landscape where the rising entrepreneurs class meshes with entrenched powerful government and private sector interests.  This film might have shed light on the ambiguousness of being successful.  Had McCounaughey prevailed - would he have been a hero? or something else.

In “The Kings Speech” an unorthodox outsider produces an effective treatment for speech pathology while being shunned by the polite society of the medical establishment.  Ironically this drama seems to be the base template for “The Dallas Buyers Club”. The filmmakers might have sought inspiration from “There Will Be Blood”, a harrowing drama about an oil field entrepreneur who rises to the top. This is a story about a man who will “drink your milkshake” rather than cure your illness. Flannery O’Connor exhibits a keen insight into the motivation for these types of anti-heroes. The killer in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”  muses over the body of a grandmother he has just executed: ““She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Unfortunately the writer and director lack O’Connor’s knowledge of hardscrabble Southern life and American entrepreneurs. They mistake McCounaughey for being good. He is hideously determined American individualist with a gun to his head.  Never underestimate their ability to conquer. They’re very productive people. They do great things.... but they also want your milkshake. Dramatically speaking, this is fertile ground.... but not when you pretend that doctors on TV are real doctors.  Noone wants to buy snake oil.... but everyone loves watching a snake oil salesman.

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