Every year, a film comes along that either attempts to help revive a handful of careers, or help launch a new directorial voice squarely into the stratosphere. However, few have the ability to do both. But, alas, that appears to be just what the latest film from filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee has gone and done.
Entitled The Dallas Buyers Club, the film is currently set to expand November 22nd into mass markets, and is easily the most entrancing picture you’ll find this in your local megaplex this weekend (sorry Katniss). The picture is based on a real life Texas man, Ron Woodroof, and his life going from a cowboy and bullrider to a drug pushing, HIV-positive AIDS activist. Given no more than 30 days to live after being diagnosed as HIV-positive, decides that instead of languishing in pain not aided by any of the approved medicines, he will take matters into his own hands and finding worthy treatments from throughout the world. Teaming with a group of outsiders (particularly one person named Rayon, played brilliantly by a never better Jared Leto), he launches a local “buyers club,” allowing people to finally get the medicine they need.
While Vallee’s hands are all over the film’s aesthetic, it goes without saying that there are a few tour de force performances that he shoots with that ever lyrical camera of his. Led by Matthew McConaughey in what is without a doubt going to be a career defining turn (at least the definitive turn of this part of his career, this character actor part), McConaughey may get more press for his drastic weight loss, but it is covering up a hellacious performance. What may be the most interesting aspect of his performance here is not the bombastic level of depth he gives to the performance, but it is his ability to handle the film’s mixture of tone and atmosphere. Never willing to really delve deeply into the film’s emotionally bleak moments, he also never goes into the realm of pure comedy, instead giving the film a sense of pitch black humor that turns it into an all more effective and effecting piece of dramatic storytelling. Leto is equally superb here, stealing every scene he is on screen for, proving that while he may come off as somewhat self important in interviews (or just watch the upcoming 30 Seconds To Mars documentary, Artifact) there are very few actors who are as breathtaking to watch on screen when their A-game is given. Toss in names like Jennifer Garner, Griffin Dunne and even Steve Zahn, and you have a film that is as entrancing to watch performance-wise as it ever could imagine being aesthetically.
That doesn’t mean Vallee doesn’t bring the goods, instead, it is quite the opposite. Best known for films like the brilliant 2012 release Café de Flore (a film not nearly enough people have seen), this is as un-Hollywood a big, Oscar-worthy biographical film as we’ve ever seen. With breathless photography from Yves Belanger, the film’s aesthetic is shockingly lyrical and plaintive, with a warmth to it that feels wonderfully in step with the film’s bleakly warm tone. Vallee’s camera is constantly moving, seemingly floating around this world like a member of the club from which the title is drawn, and with a great sense of pacing, the film doesn’t ever drag or truly move too fast. Perfectly centered in just about every way, Dallas Buyers Club is a beautifully crafted look at a man’s resilience in the face of constant roadblocks.
Ultimately, Dallas Buyers Club may lack the transcendent commentary of a documentary like How To Survive A Plague but what it does do is not only portray the worst moments of the AIDs epidemic (from the public’s disgusting lack of sympathy to the lack of any interest in getting patients the drugs they truly needed and deserved), but portray it with such grace that it becomes something entirely its own. Spearheaded by a collection of bravura performances (again, particularly McConaughey and Leto), the narrative itself may not be the groundbreaking piece of storytelling one would hope from this brazenly crafted and performed picture (it is an admittedly standard biopic structure and story), the performances and the director that gets them out of this cast elevate this material to heights that it really has no right in reaching. Unforgettable, this film is.