The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Dallas Buyers Club

We know something is wrong from the very first frame. There's Matthew McConaughey, looking frail and gaunt. This normally buff actor, who we've all seen shirtless a gazillion times, appears sickly thin. It's not supposed to be this way, and it's even more shocking than the fact that he's engaging in a threesome inside a rodeo pen. Dallas Buyers Club, based on a true story from the 1980s, hits you with this image straightaway, then proceeds to unfold an extraordinary tale about illness, personal salvation, and the unconscionable grasp the pharmaceutical companies have on the health care industry.

McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician and sometime bull rider. Ron's life is all about drinking and bedding as many women as possible. When a workplace accident sends him to the hospital, a blood test reveals that he is HIV-positive. Intensely homophobic, he initially experiences a heavy dose of denial, but then begins to look into the disease. Research leads to the discovery that the official FDA-approved treatment - a new drug called AZT - isn't nearly as effective as treatments being used in other countries. It may even be harmful. There seems to be hypocrisy in the fact that an agency purporting to heal people is preventing them from getting things that would make them well. With the help of a transgender woman named Rayon (Jared Leto) he meets in the hospital, Ron sets up a “buyers club.” The idea is simple: he smuggles drugs and supplements into the U.S., and AIDS patients pay a monthly fee to get all the meds they need. An FDA official repeatedly tries to shut his operation down, while a local doctor (Jennifer Garner) thinks he might be onto something in fighting the establishment.

You may remember from high school English class that there are three types of stories: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Himself. Dallas Buyers Club tells all of those stories simultaneously, and does so brilliantly. The Man vs. Man story is about how Ron becomes an activist, devising ways to navigate the legal perils of smuggling unapproved drugs into the country, while being relentlessly pursued by the FDA rep. One guy is the underdog, the other is the establishment. The Man vs. Nature story is about how Ron stuggles to accept his illness. AIDS takes an increasingly nasty toll on his body, causing him to become weak and experience a painful ringing in his ears. He can't make AIDS go away; he has to learn to accept that he has it, and that his previous lifestyle is simply no longer viable.

The Man vs. Himself story is perhaps the most interesting, because it doesn't quite play out the way you expect it to. Although Ron begins helping other AIDS patients, the vast majority of whom are gay, he doesn't have any great moral epiphany. He initially acts out of self-interest; he doesn't want to die, so he finds ways to get treatments other than AZT. Getting those same treatments to gay men and women is, for him, a way to make money, rather than an altruistic behavior. He needs cash to buy more stuff and grease the necessary wheels. Later on, his stance toward gay people does change, but not because he's necessarily any less homophobic. (In fact, he's surly to gays throughout.) The change in himself comes because he stops seeing only their homosexuality and starts seeing them as people in the same boat that he is. Ron identifies with their suffering, their desire to get better and survive. He locates the common ground that begins to erode his prejudices.

This is the best performance of Matthew McConaughey's career. That's saying a lot, considering the roll he's been on the last two years. The actor transforms himself, both physically and psychologically, into a man who is proud, bigoted, angry, frightened, stubborn, devious, shrewd, and tenacious, all at the same time. The film works because McConaughey doesn't feel the need to soften Ron Woodroof's edges. It's okay for him to be a not-always-likable character because, for whatever the reason, he ends up doing something noble. McConaughey realizes this, and therefore dives right into the truth of who Ron is and why it probably took someone as unlikely as he to help bring about much-needed change.

The supporting actors are all terrific, as well. Jennifer Garner gives Dallas Buyers Club a strong moral center. Her character, Dr. Eve Saks, is fighting the same battle as Ron, only from the inside. She represents the idea that, at some level, the machine knows it's broken. Then there's Jared Leto, who is a revelation as Rayon. Barely recognizable, Leto delivers a performance of such compassion and grace that we can't help but be moved. Transgender people are often portrayed as the butt of a joke on screen (hello, Last Vegas!). In Leto's hands, Rayon is stoic and sweet, someone we genuinely come to care for.

Written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, Dallas Buyers Club hits every note just right. The film engages both your intellect and emotions. In the end, its message is not just that the “system” has to change, but that the people in and around the system have to change, as well. When an individual or an entity becomes locked into a point of view, even when evidence points to the contrary, bad things happen. Opening our eyes to new ideas points the way toward happiness and, just as importantly, health. This is a beautiful, inspiring film.

( out of four)

Dallas Buyers Club is rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.

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