This week Andrew, Kyle, and Ryan will be discussing the one scene from each of the films that they feel clenched their nomination for the Best Picture Oscar. *Some spoilers to follow*For a film that’s advertised with a smiling Matthew McConaughey and uplifting trailer, Dallas Buyers Club is a frequently nauseating experience. The lion’s share of the credit for the discomfort is due to McConaughey who makes the transition between macho bigot to strong-posturing medicine man for the people visibly difficult. Less credit is due to Leto, who does an ok job as the transsexual Rayon, and the direction from Jean-Marc Vallee.
The frequent descents into Ron’s (McConaughey) state of mind go for a slightly more painful and less hallucinatory vibe than the free-floating camera that accompanied Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia twenty years ago. The connection between the two films goes beyond the central disease, as both try and get into the head-space of people who are trying to overcome their bigotry. Vallee’s approach is less novel and the many scenes of McConaughey moaning on the floor or blacking out make the point of his pain clear with little creativity. They’re effective at what they do, but don’t leave much of an impression once they’re gone.
It’s unlikely that Dallas Buyers Club would be nominated for Best Picture if we were not engaged in an ongoing conversation about gay rights in America. At the same time, it’s such a product of now that it fits the mold of the Academy perfectly by giving a slight nod to whatever social issue is most prevalent at the time of nomination. With so much of the film dedicated to Ron’s physical state it leaves little room to explore Rayon’s transsexuality or how Ron grew to accept her. So there are two moments that share the responsibility for Dallas Buyers Club’s nomination, and both involve McConaughey taking a strong position outside of the style of the film.
The first comes early on, and is a bit of wish-fulfillment for those in the audience who think that a crippling disease doesn’t affect your ability to threaten someone physically. In tight medium shots we watch Ron and Rayon enter the frame with one of Ron’s old drinking buddies who hasn’t had the same evolution of acceptance as Ron has. The distance here is appropriate, because Ron and Rayon choose to stay with each other, and Ron’s old pal makes the choice to harass her. So when Ron puts him in an armbar after some unflattering remarks it’s a sudden emotional turning point as we see Ron has chosen to direct his aggression at the remnants of his past. Vallee here doesn’t do anything spectacular with the camera but it’s the wise decision in letting McConaughey’s sudden focus guide the action.
That moment is balanced out a bit later when McConaughey gets to revisit his early courtroom scenes with a big show at a town hall meeting. Little can be done to give originality to this setup and the long-shots of Ron by Vallee don’t try to. It’s not even memorable because of McConaughey, who goes full anger and gives into righteous fury we’ve seen in better movies. The impact comes from the image of McConaughey, terrifyingly gaunt with his medical equipment, a skeleton compared to the healthy people around him.
One moment provides the strong character transition, the other a defiant shout to leave the theater with. Combined they earned a Best Picture nomination, but I doubt it will be enough for the gold.