And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas, who is known as much for his poetry as his alcoholism, wrote these words for his dying father. It is a forceful polemic against a weak cessation into death. Though there be no hope, curse/bless, show me that life is worth the fighting, be angry that life ends; these sentiments cut to the core of humanity. Would that there were half as much verve as in Dallas Buyers Club as in these scant few lines.
The story focuses on two serial fornicators, a rough and tumble weekend rodeo cowboy named Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) and a transsexual christened Raymond now Rayon (Jared Leto), both of whom are stricken with HIV and then AIDS. In order to manage the symptoms (since he’s turned away by the medical establishment for treatment), Ron explores alternative medicine and in the process decides to found a “buyers club” (a legal loophole exploited to get unapproved drugs into the country). He recruits Rayon in order to tap into the homosexual crowd and a friendship of sorts develops. As the FDA enforces and tightens their regulations, Ron brings a series of lawsuits against them, all of which fail and after the last one he is given a round of applause before unceremoniously being offed by a title card. If it sounds unsatisfying perhaps you should join the Dallas Not-Buying-It Club.
The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, undermines itself at nearly every turn. Unlike the sentiments in Mr. Thomas’s poem, the film is not a diatribe against death for the condition is meekly accepted and the only goal is to manage the symptoms. Neither is the film a buddy pic between the coarse, homophobic Ron and the prissy Rayon. The film waves that flag, an affection arises between them, but this too is undermined when Rayon succumbs to death and Ron’s first response is anger toward the medical industry. He goes to confront the doctor, charging him with murder, but later he’s reminded that it wasn’t the treatment or lack of that killed Rayon, but the fact that she was a drug addict. The film can nary muster a shrug before Rayon is forgotten.
So then the movie is about the crimes of the FDA. Indeed most of the screen time is devoted to this, but it too is compromised by the fact that his call for unregulated medicine out of desperate need is the very reason why the allegedly poisonous AZT is railroaded through the approval process. So perhaps it is the greed that is condemned for, as one renegade doctor puts it, “the only people that AZT helps are the people who sell it.” This is surely the prayer of those behind the movie, but it comes late in the film. Ron turns from profiteering and opens the Club to anyone giving one of the most mixed “inspirational speeches” in recent cinema: “You ain’t sick, you ain’t sick. Period. You tell a guy he’s got a week to live? Shit, he’s already dead. You tell a guy he can keep on goin’? He’ll find a way. Remember, ya ain’t dyin’. But if you think you are then you ain’t got nothing to lose.” At this point in the film it has expended all of its red herrings and moved into the other primary colors.
But Matthew McConaughey is outstanding and compensates for the thinness of the story. The last time something so dead was brought to such life was when a Volleyball co-starred in a movie with Tom Hanks, but McConaughey sells the script on pure Texan charm. Due to his penchant for shirt removal and preference toward lighter fair, he’s been underrated as an actor, but as he’s aged he’s taken on more mature roles and this combined with his emaciation will garner many awards.
The supporting cast is also strong with Jared Leto, equally gaunt, taking the vacuous queen cliche and injecting an element of pathos that admirably attempts to counterbalance the running gag of a prissy homosexual. Also worthy of recognition is Jennifer Garner who is quickly becoming the go-to actress for earnest compassion. She oozes concern and care and is frequently the heart in many a heartless tale; although as Dr. Eve Saks she isn’t used for much outside of someone for Ron to heap abuse upon and schmooze, but she does what she’s called to do.
Jean-Marc Vallée is not devoid of skill as the competency of his previous films attest, but because Life does not conform to the ABCs of Hollywood scripts and because Biopics are so often craven attempts at Oscar fodder, they are the lowest form of dramatic film. To coerce a biography into conventional story form warps the joy and truncates the sorrow, reduces a life to a small theme and often times bloats the sentiments to bathetic proportions. The sins of the genre are many and Dallas Buyers Club commits them all willfully and unabashed. It is a staggeringly empty film, and it is as lurid a film bent at being Oscar-bait as you’ll ever find. Avoiding the root of the problem to treat the symptoms injected a timidity into the film that even the pagan bleakness of Dylan Thomas would rage, rage against. At one point Ron says, “I’ve only got one life. I want it to mean something” and in this we can hear also the earnest plea of the screenwriters.