Burning Away The Chaff

Ever since the beginning of the awards season this year, two actors have been racking up win after win: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. They’re now the odds-on favorites to take the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor statues at the Academy Awards on March 2nd. The good news is, the awards are justified, as both performances are deep, raw, and incredible.

Dallas Buyer’s Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodruff, an electrician on oil rigs in the Dallas area and sometime rodeo cowboy in 1985. Ron (McConaughey) has a penchant for gambling and a taste for the ladies, booze, and cocaine. An accident at work puts Ron in the hospital, where Doctors Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) and Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) discover Ron has AIDS, with a T-cell count so low Sevard gives him a month to live. Ron refuses to believe the diagnosis, since AIDS was identified in the public mind as solely a gay disease.

Another episode in his trailer sends Ron to the library where he digs into what little is known of the disease at the time. He realizes he was likely infected by a female partner who was an intravenous drug user. Ron is as prejudiced against the LGBT community as any good ol’ boy in Texas.  While in the hospital he meets Rayon (Leto), a transgender patient of Eve’s, and Ron’s reaction is pure disgust. But when word of his condition leaks out to his friends, he finds himself on the receiving end of the same prejudice he once dished out. Ron eventually bonds with Rayon over a poker game while they’re both hospitalized.

Unable to get treatment in the US, Ron travels to a hole-in-the-wall clinic in Mexico, run by a disgraced American doctor named Vass (Griffin Dunne). With drug therapies that are in use around the world but which are unapproved by the FDA, Vass helps Ron recovered enough to function again. Ron sees a way to make a great deal of money by bringing these drug therapies to AIDS patients in the Dallas area. Rayon becomes Ron’s partner and provides him entrance into the LGBT community. To get around the FDA’s active resistance to any other therapies, they form the Dallas Buyer’s Club so the drugs can be justified as “personal” use.

McConaughey has been on a tear since he ditched rom-coms after Ghosts of Girlfriends Past in 2009. After a two-year hiatus, he came back with an exceptionally strong performance in The Lincoln Lawyer, and has since done well-received work in Mud, Magic Mike, and the current HBO series True Detective. He’s mesmerizing as Ron in a warts and all portrayal. At first Ron is like wheat on the stalk, covered with protective chaff, but as the chaff is burned away by his illness, the good seed inside him emerges.

Similarly, Leto had early success with the seminal TV series “My So-Called Life” and roles in Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream, and Lord of War, but in 2009 he dropped out of Hollywood to pursue music with his band “Thirty Seconds To Mars.” Now he’s come roaring back with his fierce portrayal of Rayon. Yet it’s a performance that also touches the heart. In a scene where Rayon tells his father he’s dying of AIDS, Leto is uncompromising yet also touchingly vulnerable, an impressive feat of balance. Interestingly, McConaughey’s co-star in Girlfriends Past was Jennifer Garner. She’s also charted a different path with her career ever since Juno, with some mainstream performances as well as independent films like this. In her role as Eve, she is the embodiment of those who found the courage to put prejudice aside and help those suffering from a devastating and frightening disease. Garner does it beautifully.

French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee has also been nominated for a Best Director Oscar for this film. His biggest previous success was with the costume drama The Young Victoria. He delivers a rugged and vibrant film, working from a script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack (also Oscar nominees). The cinematography by Yves Belanger, who’s mostly worked in his native Canada, captures the intense light and atmosphere of Texas and Mexico beautifully.

While there’ve been other movies that looked at the HIV/AIDS epidemic, most notably And The Band Played On and Philadelphia, Dallas Buyer’s Club finds a new focus by looking at the actions of the medical community and bureaucrats who prevented other therapies from being used. Instead they focused on AZT, which had been developed decades earlier as a cancer drug but was a failure because it not only killed the cancer but the whole cell. Their actions allowed the drug company behind AZT to market it at a price of $10,000 a month. While his initial impetus is to pursue a capital venture, it became a modern-day Odyssey for Ron Woodruff as he tried to slay the twin monsters Ignorance and Prejudice in order to save his “crew,” the members of the club. This is a powerful, haunting movie, and thankfully the award wins and Oscar nominations have put the film into wide distribution after its original, limited run. It deserves to be seen.

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