Dallas Buyers Club met a level of breathless critical adoration that seemed impossible for Matthew McConaughey a few years ago. But with the success that he’s had, starting with The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011 and continuing through 2013’s Mud, it’s become something of a given that he’s going to continue stretching his acting skills. This is a great thing for those of us who weathered the harvest of empty snacks like The Wedding Planner or Failure to Launch.
Yes, McConaughey shed almost 50 pounds to play a man wracked with HIV, which an impressive physical feat no matter what. But Dallas Buyers Club feels like a step back. There is hardly a moment that went by that I wasn’t aware of some aspect of the film pulling itself into too many directions to make too many social points. Even McConaughey’s performance isn’t that much of a stretch as playing a Texas roughneck in a bit of a jam is a slight spin on the kind of roles he’s become associated with over the years.
I have no big problems with McConaughey’s performance, as it's very good, but it’s the sort of physical stretch that someone takes when they’re trying to be taken seriously again, not on the continuing end of an impressive streak of roles. While McConaughey is good his partners don’t come off nearly as well despite doing their best. Jared Leto, in particular, doesn’t look comfortable walking around in a pair of high heels, which sums up the movie as a well-intentioned bit of play acting that amounts to little. We need more movies like Dallas Buyers Club, I just hope they get better.
The direction by Jean-Marc Vallee shoulders most of the blame for this disconnect. As Ron (McConaughey) finds out he has HIV and starts to battle the disease the screen frequently flashes to whatever he is reading in extreme close up and puts a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack. This makes sense when he’s learning about the disease at first, but after the third time the screen blacks out and the camera is back on the floor with Ron it stops being a subjective reminder of his pain and becomes overbearing text. Ron never comes off as the kind of person who reminds himself of the disease he carries all the time, so this kind of perception comes off as dull flash instead of a glimpse into his psyche.
Vallee also has a tendency to switch the style that he is filming the story in with little inclination about why. When Ron starts the Dallas Buyers Club to get non-FDA approved drugs to people who need them, we’re treated to a travelogue that edited and shot with the clarity of a music video. It seems like a concession to the soundtrack instead of the character as the images matched up nicely with the gentle rock that accompanied the montage. There are two moments that are well matched to Ron’s state of mind - a blood-red confessional that appears to be in a church but pulls out to reveal a strip-club, and a disturbing sequence when Ron smiles as he is covered with moths in a drug storage locker. But the rest of the time Vallee’s direction is content to hit the same visual and auditory beats, even if they seem at odds with Ron.
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s screenplay is also too scattered to tell any of the stories very well. Because of McConaghey’s chops the main storyline involving his turn from damaging homophobe to a good man is handled well, but plays out in vignettes of varying effectiveness. It’s crowd-pleasing to see the disheveled Ron put his rude associate in an arm bar to apologize for some homophobic remarks, but it doesn’t mesh well with the frequent attempts to explain how weak and sick Ron is. The structure comes off as several episodes of a miniseries dealing with different aspects of the plot that are edited together as a full film. Moments where the FDA is brought on to be the villain belong in one of McConaughey’s lawyer films, while Leto’s attempt to bring some empathy to his transsexual character Rayon through her drug addiction seem like leftovers from his work in Requiem For A Dream.
It’s not that Dallas Buyers Club is a mess, or even a bad film, but it’s so well-intentioned in its many storylines that it only manages to tell one of them effectively. As ill-fitting as the FDA and transsexual portions are, none of them fare as badly as Jennifer Garner’s role as the worried doctor. She shows up, frets about for a bit, and then exits the scene after McConaughey or Leto have cried on her shoulder for a bit. Garner can be a great performer, but she’s not well served by a role that reduces her character and profession to a grief mop.
If it seems like my rating of “Indifference” is a bit light compared to all the criticisms I have of Dallas Buyers Club, it’s because all this talent adds up to a flat product. Despite the shallowness of the presentation the performances are still top-notch, and while I agree that Rayon should have been recast with an actual transsexual the movie’s attempts at confronting homo and transphobia are laudable. Dallas Buyers Club heads in the right direction with a lot of passion, it just fires all over the place.
This is the worst place to be in as it’s damned by its good intentions. McConaughey and company deserve all the praise they are sure to continue receiving over the coming weeks, but it shouldn’t be for this film. Well intentioned though it may be, Dallas Buyers Club just doesn’t hurt when it counts.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee.
Screenplay written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack.
Starring Matthew McConaughey.