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.