At the Movies: The Dallas Buyers Club

February 1st, 2014 9 Comments

Dallas Buyers Club

 

It was after we watched The Dallas Buyers’ Club that Darleen observed the films we had seen that were up for awards this year were all about truly despicable people. The one exception was Captain Phillips, where the eponymous hero—about whom we never learn enough to be really satisfying from an Aristotelian point of view; in fact we learn more about the Somali villains—is a decent, ordinary man trying his best to deal with extraordinary circumstances. But the others…

Blue Jasmine is about a sick and evil woman. American Hustle, while we come to like and even admire the resourcefulness of the protagonists, is about low-level grifters who make their living scamming money from people who can ill-afford to lose the little money they have. The concept of the hero, in its traditional, Aristotelian or Joseph Campbellian (is that a word?) sense, seems to no longer exist. I’m not talking about the cartoon heroes of early Hollywood (Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, et al in their white hats, with their superhero horses and helpless heroines clinging to their arms) but the ordinary, decent, Everyman heroes like the ones Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda used to portray, or even the flawed-but-ultimately-triumphant larger-than-life men who go up against overwhelming odds for the common good (think John Wayne in The Searchers). Everyman or flawed, they all seem to have vanished. In their stead we have—to go back to The Dallas Buyers’ Club—a crooked, vicious, drug-addicted, seedy bi-sexual who hides his sexual proclivities under an ugly veneer of homophobia. The opening scene, a sordid, furtive three-way, where Matthew McConaughey is screwing an anonymous girl while being screwed by some anonymous man, all of them standing in the chutes behind a rodeo (yeah, cow manure is always a sure-fire turn-on for me, you betcha), was almost enough to make me turn the damned thing off.

(Hollywood seems to have succumbed to the pornographic philosophy of film-making: it won’t be titillating unless it’s graphically portrayed, a flawed concept, at least for those of us who would rather do than watch others doing. By way of contrast, think of the scene in George Stevens’ The More the Merrier, where Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur, as the hopelessly in love protagonists, both fully clothed, are sitting on the front steps of their boarding house. He can’t keep his hands off her, and she desperately wants his hands on her, but she keeps dutifully removing them as both their voices get huskier and huskier and their breathing gets shorter and shorter and their sentences trail off into nothingness. It’s a scene played in a public place—extras walk by in the foreground—but it’s one of the sexiest pieces of film-making I’ve ever seen. Most love scenes today are reminiscent of those DVDs on how to assemble your [fill in the blank].)

A buyer’s club—the phrase was new to me—was apparently a phenomenon that emerged in the early days of the AIDS epidemic back in the eighties, and it referred to the desperate efforts of poor devils to stay alive by any means they could possibly afford. McConaughey plays a man whose lifestyle has finally caught up with him. The doctors give him thirty days to live, and he goes on a frantic quest to find illegal drugs in Mexico that might keep him alive. The only way he can afford the drugs is by purchasing enough of them to smuggle them back and sell at a profit, smuggle more, sell at a profit and so on, until he is finally making enough of a profit to attract the unwanted attentions of the DEA, FDA, Border Patrol, and various other governmental agencies. It’s a bravura performance on McConaughey’s part. (He apparently lost forty-five pounds to play the role, and for most of the movie he looks as though he had died shortly before filming began.) He maintains the essence of his character—despicable—throughout, treating the desperate men who come to him with their dollars with as much contempt as he treated the hookers he frequented in the drug-and-sex orgies of his earlier, healthier life. But…

The movie is redeemed by having the traditional Aristotelian arc of a man whose actions transform him into something he was not before, and there are two scenes that make you almost forgive this seedy hustler.

At one point McConaughey’s buyers’ club has run afoul of the law badly enough that he no longer has the money he needs to buy the drugs. He walks out of the motel where he conducts his business followed by the black lady who keeps his books, and he looks at the line of desperate men waiting for the help he has promised. The black lady is haranguing him about the lack of money and he interrupts her by tossing his car keys to her. “Sell the Caddy.” And he walks off.

And then there is a beautifully understated, underplayed scene near the end with Jared Leto. One of the few decent human beings in the movie is an HIV-positive transvestite played by Leto. More than just a decent human being, he is really the soul of the story, funny, caustic, vulnerable, affectionate, compassionate, and his relentless humanity and his completely non-self-pitying persona gradually wear down McConaughey’s homophobic carapace. In that scene near the end McConaughey softens for a moment just enough to hug Leto, and it’s a remarkable, magnificent moment, the camera lingering on McConaughey’s face as he tries to understand the new, more human, more humane, person he has become.

It’s Leto who steals the movie. There is a short scene where he dons men’s clothing (a suit that is several sizes too large for him) and goes to his respectable, upper-middleclass, uncompromisingly heterosexual father’s office to beg for money, not for himself, but for McConaughey, and that scene would move a stone to tears, both father and son unable to make contact, but equally unable to deny their feelings for each other. That sixty-second, maybe two-minute scene is enough to justify watching the movie.

The Dallas Buyers’ Club is well done, and has some great performances, but… But. Philadelphia said much the same thing better.

 

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I agree these movies leave very little to the imagination and are borderline porn. This idea of evil people or odious people seems to be a trend in Hollywood. It is hard to find a decent movie to go to. This is why my husband and I went to see “Saving Mr. Banks.” Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney as a somewhat flawed but basically decent man to is trying and succeeding in making people happy. Even the scenes between a young P.L. Travis and her alcoholic father are heart wrenching. I remember seeing movies on TV like “Casablanca” where Humphrey Bogart plays a flawed man who does the right thing at the end. Even in movies where the individual was really bad their actions caught up to them in the end.

    This is why I loved to going to see “The Lord of the Rings” movies or the “The Hobbit ” movies. Evil is evil.The evil people are not misunderstood or tormented they are evil period. Then the good prevails and overcomes evil in the end.

  2. Anonymous says:

    http://youtu.be/PTD82RLaBpY

    “When did we allow evil to become stronger then us?” When indeed.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Agree with your last sentence.

    And agree wholeheartedly with your opinion on graphic portrayals of sex scenes. Yuk. Leave something to my imagination Hollywood.

  4. Anonymous says:

    http://www.upworthy.com/13-of-women-with-speaking-roles-in-movies-are-more-likely-to-be-naked?c=ufb1

    This is some very interesting information about women in the movies and also about the Academy Awards.

    You rather do than watch? Do what? Have a three way?

  5. Anonymous says:

    The sad part is that this is based on the true life story of Ron Woodroof. So there is a man who really behaved like this.

  6. Anonymous says:

    JP,

    I have been reading your movie reviews over the past couple of weeks feeling unable to comment because I have not seen any of these movies. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I watched anything on the big screen and I miss the whole experience.

    Upon reading your review of American Hustle and Blue Jasmine I sat thinking how neither would justify my spending the $16 necessary to sit in front of the big screen. In fact, the very first as the very first advertisements of American Hustle payed on our small screens I very audibly groaned the appearance of what I call more “Gansta Drama”.

    Over the past couple of years Australian television has been bombarded with a constant stream of “telemovies” called, Underbelly. Underbelly, is just what it suggests. It dramatises (not very well in my eyes) and glorifies the underworld of Australian crime over the past 100 years making the seediest, most despicable, pathetic and nauseating criminals look like heroes. It features the worse criminal bosses, crime families and street gangs played by some of the most skilled Australian actors. Of course the end result makes the “Gansta” life look frightfully attractive.

    The first series, just called Underbelly, received nation-wide attention when one of the criminals being portrayed was still appealing (I think) one of his sentences and the show was banned in the state where the court case was happening. The media went wild causing a ridiculous scandal resulting in publicity that the creators could have only dreamed of. There was even a rumour that the release date coinciding with the court case was not a mere accident. This just couldn’t be true could it? (Oh dear the sarcasm!)

    Underbelly has one award after award on Australian television and still rakes in the audiences, even as late night repeats.

    The only value I can see in the producing of such rubbish is that it is Australian produced and casted and it is keeping a whole generation of Australian actors, not to mention the behind the scenes staff, in work.

    If my dislike of this type of drama is not obvious then you had better read again. I think there is enough violence in this world with out having it appear on our television and movie screens in this excessively melodramatic form.

    Kathy

  7. Anonymous says:

    I saw Dallas Buyers Club today but didn’t come away with quite the same view of Rob Woodroof’s behavior. I felt like it took someone who was accustomed to pushing limits and rules of acceptable behavior to take such risks to obtain the drugs. Ron Woodroof was a real person and while I understand Hollywood embellished some of his pastimes for the film (he was a rodeo enthusiast, not a rider), I’ve read that he had that swaggering, larger-than-life personality that Matthew McConaughy portrayed. It was a different story that the one told in “Philadelphia,” and one I hadn’t heard before.

    JJ

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    at the moment you´re actually writing faster than I can read ;),
    I still haven´t read the rodeo-one, yet. Yes, I know rodeo is a hypernym…
    But to this one. Sometimes your reviews are a praise and somestimes a kind of warning and I´m thankful for that. I don´t think “The Dallas Buyer´s Club” is my sort of movie. The main character doesn´t appeal to me and beyond that I like it more subtile. It doesn´t make the plot more thrilling if everything is shown in huge close-ups for the last idiot to understand.
    By the way… I don´t feel so idiotic any more since I´ve seen you´ve misspelled Joel McCrea, too. I´m in good company ;) .
    I´ve looked up the scene you´ve mentioned and I understand what you mean. Things get more suspenseful if left to the viewers fantasy. Basically it all happenes in the head.
    However you´ve made me curious about the appearance of Jared Leto, whom I´ve never seen in a movie, yet. He seems to be very mutable. Your description reminded me of a scene in “Troy” when the late Peter O´Toole as King Priamos sneaked almost humbly into Achilles´ tent to beg for the body of his dead son Hector. A quiet little scene with only two people that poked out of this in other ways monumental movie and that indemnified me for the rest.
    “The Dallas Buyer´s Club” is a highly praised movie and it´s good to read a different point of view. Thanks again!
    And now I´m going to read the rodeo-one :)

    Best wishes
    NW

    • Thank you for catching the misspelling. Normally, I subscribe to Mark Twain’s dictum about spelling (“It’s a damn poor mind indeed that can’t think of at least three ways to spell any word.”), but I do like to get names right, since my own is so frequently misspelled. I have corrected it.
      JP

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