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Flawless acting helps flawed film in 'Dallas Buyers Club'
DallasBuyersClub
Matthew McConaughey, right, as Ron Woodroof in a scene from “Dallas Buyers Club.”

‘Dallas Buyers Club’

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare

Rated: R, for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use

Run time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

Bottom line: Flawed film but flawless acting

“Dallas Buyers Club” features two of the most powerful acting performances of the year and a handful of deeply moving scenes.

Yet the dominant feeling it left me with was ambivalence, because for each of its strengths, there is at least one flaw that undercuts the film’s power.

Based on a true story, the film chronicles the struggles of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a drug-abusing, womanizing, gay-hating electrician and bull rider whose life is upended when he is diagnosed with AIDS.

The film is set in 1985, when most people, especially homophobic rednecks like Ron, believed AIDS was a disease that only struck homosexual men. 

Given only about 30 days to live, Ron devises a scheme to smuggle in medication from Mexico, both for himself and for the many buyers he begins to attract who can’t get life-saving medication legally.

Ron develops an unlikely partnership with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual prostitute with a heart of gold. They soon serve a large clientele of people who, like Ron and Rayon, are desperate for any medication that might keep them alive. 

Part of the problem is how obvious the movie’s agenda is. It clearly wants to make a point about straight people overcoming homophobia. Pairing a bull rider who spews gay slurs every other sentence with a practically angelic transsexual isn’t exactly a subtle way to make that point.

Nevertheless, the first 40 minutes or so are riveting. But then the business develops from a selfish hustle into something resembling a social crusade, as Ron battles DEA agents, doctors and pharmaceutical companies, all while his own health deteriorates.

The movie takes on the structure of a David-versus-Goliath activist film similar to “Erin Brockovich.” Only, it isn’t clear exactly what the goal is. What would victory look like in “Dallas Buyer Club”?

Is this about Ron getting over his homophobia, or at least managing to stop saying ugly things to every single gay character he encounters? That seems a rather outmoded goal. 

Or is he exposing the hypocrisy of the pharmaceutical industry, FDA and DEA? Or is he crusading for better treatment for AIDS patients? It’s definitely about that, but Ron is about the farthest thing from a selfless hero.

“Dallas Buyers Club” tries to do all of those things simultaneously, and in the process doesn’t completely carry through on any thread of the story.

The film would have been infinitely more powerful had the filmmakers omitted Woodroof’s legal battles altogether and developed Ron’s and Rayon’s personal stories, because all of the strongest elements of the film come from McConaughey and Leto.

Both lost at least 30 pounds for their roles. The effect is striking, particularly for McConaughey, who looks so unhealthy viewers may worry over his actual well-being. His physical transformation is reminiscent of Christian Bale in “The Machinist” or Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.”

But the real accomplishment for both McConaughey and Leto is transforming two stereotypes into flesh and blood. Even though we would sympathize with him to a degree simply because he is suffering from AIDS, nothing about Ron is endearing. 

Ron would be thoroughly unlikable without McConaughey’s swagger, irresistible energy and willingness to inhabit the character even to the point of doing himself harm.

As for Rayon, we know very little about her. She is outcast from her family, but we get only one scene between Rayon and her disapproving father. She is an addict, transsexual and has AIDS.

The script doesn’t give us much else about Rayon, and without Leto’s disarming performance Rayon would be the personification of a social category rather than a genuine character. 

It’s astounding to watch McConaughey and Leto elevate this messy script into a tear-inducing, oddly humorous and ultimately uplifting experience.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is confounding yet worthwhile. The individual performances are much stronger than the film as a whole, but the performances alone are worth the price of admission.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.

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