Okay, here goes my annual pre and post Oscar blitz. Last night I watched two of the nominated films, back to back. The first one was Dallas Buyer's Club. Knowing a bit about the story, I approached it with some trepidation.
I was working and living in Dallas during the time portrayed in the film. My work included meeting and helping some people with AIDS. On the personal side, I lost three friends to that disease during the time portrayed in the film. One of them, a friend with whom I worked and laughed in the theater, was close.
In those days, AIDS was truly a death sentence. Patients were often treated coldly even by hospital staff who were supposed to take care of them. I remember being at a symposium during that time at one of the major hospitals in the Dallas area. A man on the panel was a victim of AIDS. He spoke of the treatment he received in that very hospital - the dietician left his food trays outside his door for him to get out of bed and retrieve when he was too weak to walk - the nurses frequently wouldn't answer his calls - nobody wanted to touch him. I am proud to say, although some people avoided him after the panel discussion, several there went up and hugged him for his courage.
I knew what I should see in Dallas Buyer's Club and I was right. It was all there in the film, the truth of the era and the anathema a diagnosis of AIDS made many people. Although I had read rave reviews of Matthew McConaughey's performance, I was unprepared for his brilliance in the role.
Yep, I'm a believer. This is by far his best creation in a series of good ones. I don't know how much weight he lost in preparation for the role, but he appears skeletal in the film. That's not done by CGI, either. His character is an aging bull rider and electrician who is adamantly into women and viciously opposed to homosexuals. The diagnosis, therefore, stuns him and throws him into a world both unfamiliar and frightening. He is given a prognosis of thirty days in the beginning.
The film is the story of the journey of the man on whom the story is based. It is a story of growth and change by someone who will NOT go quietly into that good night. He studies all available info, learns AZT, the drug then being tested for FDA approval, could be toxic in the doses given. He seeks out alternatives and finds them, adding years to his life.
He comes up with an idea of providing the natural supplements and herbs in a buyer's club concept, in which the people pay a set fee and get all they need. It isn't cheap, but it's much better than the cost of AZT. Most of the people involved could not be insured in those days. Either their coverage was dropped with the onset of the diagnosis or they could not get coverage for that pre-existing condition.
He became wealthy on the proceeds in the beginning, but toward the end, he began giving people the supplements if they couldn't pay.
Some of the film is visually wrenching and ugly. There are a couple of scenes that are beautiful. My favorite was when McConaughey's character returns to the clinic in Mexico where he gets his supplements. They tell him they are experimenting with a new extract taken from a certain caterpillar that boosts the immune system in humans. While there, he stumbles into a hatchery where the caterpillars are kept until their metamorphosis is completed. In the small chamber, he is surrounded by hundreds of beautiful butterflies. He stares in wonder as they light on him, touching him as few humans would. It is a poetic scene as he realizes he has changed like the caterpillars.
Besides McConaughey's stunning performance, Jared Leto portrays Rayon, a transgender fellow sufferer of AIDS. Leto is also nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Rayon is a fictional character in the otherwise true story. Leto gives a mesmerizing performance as the self-destructive Rayon.
Jennifer Garner, aka Mrs. Ben Affleck, gives a deeply felt performance as a doctor treating people with AIDS.
One of my favorite character actors, Denis O'Hare (of True Blood and several memorable episodes of Law & Order to name a few of his credits), plays Garner's superior, who is against the work McConaughey's character does. The doctor is in league with the FDA in stopping the use of the supplements and herbal remedies.
My only objection to the film comes from being a longtime Dallas area resident. I knew from the beginning that it was not shot in Dallas. It turned out to be shot in New Orleans. They did have a couple of contemporary shots of the Dallas skyline, which is considerably different from the skyline in the 1980s. Oh well, nobody else would notice that, I guess. It's just that it reminded me of the original series Dallas when they had longshots with mountains in the background and also had an episode when a hurricane hit the city. Yeah, right...
This film is not light, frothy entertainment. It is gritty and as stated, ugly in places, both visually and emotionally. But it is a memorable story of one man's fight to extend his life and those of others. He was a man of courage who changed remarkably and achieved his goals.
I always liked Matthew McConaughey anyway. After all, he is a Longhorn from UT. He's always been a good actor. With this performance, he is a great one.
Check it out.
I will be posting my review of Gravity later on today.