Dallas Buyers Club

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Matthew McConaughey is favourite to win the best actor Oscar tonight for his role as Ron Woodroof, the homophobic rodeo rider who discovers he’s got HIV and only 30 days to live. Some friends and I were chatting about how the actor famously lost a dramatic amount of weight to play the role, and whether or not this kind of physical transformation hasn’t become a shorthand for acting prowess and a shortcut to award nominations. Not that McConaughey isn’t great in this role – he is and when he’s on screen he’s all you’re watching, but, are we being distracted? So impressed with an actor’s commitment to their craft that we take their stellar acting performance as a given? Take Charlize Theron in Monster; she was superb but probably more attention and applause was paid to her gaining weight and daring to look *ugly* on screen than to her acting. Conversely David Bowie played The Elephant Man on stage in the 1980s with no prosthetics or special effects to assist him – the physicality of his performance effected the transformation.

But, that aside, Dallas Buyers Club is a great film. It’s another of the recent flurry of ‘based on a true story’ movies released in time for awards season (although just how true it is, is up for debate.) Ron Woodroof is a man’s man. A swaggering, hard-living, good-time boy working as a part-time electrician and bull riding in his spare time (as you do, or at least you do in Texas). After getting injured and collapsing at work he discovers that he has HIV and a short time to live. He refuses to passively accept this prognosis, not least because he sees it as a gay disease and he is very definitely anti-gay, and he sets out to educate himself about the virus and its treatment. He sources new drugs not yet approved by the FDA, smuggling them in from Mexico and further afield and eventually establishes the Dallas Buyers Club where the $400 membership fee buys you all the (illegal) meds you need.

It’s eminently watchable with a great cast. Jared Leto (no stranger to ‘the method’ himself) is a revelation as Rayon, a transgender woman and fellow HIV sufferer who befriends a reluctant Ron and becomes his business partner. Jared Leto has always been too pretty to be a boy and makes a frighteningly convincing woman. Their relationship provides much of the film’s humour and ultimately softens Ron’s anti-gay attitude. Jennifer Garner is strong as the sweet and kind-hearted Dr Eve Saks who treats Ron after his initial diagnosis and gradually warms to the man underneath, becoming his friend.

Dallas Buyers Club Leto McConaughey

It’s a stark and uncomfortable watch in places. An ugly scene in a bar, where Ron is violently rejected by his rodeo pals, vividly conjures up this frightening time in the 1980s when no one really understood HIV or AIDS. Anyone diagnosed became social pariahs living under a death sentence, their blood and saliva perceived as toxic to the uninfected. The early scenes of Ron’s seedy trailer park life of casual promiscuity and drug-taking (it’s suggested in a brief flashback that he contracted the disease from unprotected sex with an intravenous drug user) also make pretty grim viewing.

In its portrayal of a less than lovely character, at times seemingly unable to halt his own destruction, it reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s  The Wrestler. And it doesn’t apologise for the lifestyle or the attitudes of those it depicts. But in the same way that Philadelphia broke ground while still retaining a Hollywood gloss, Dallas Buyers Club is in the same vein. In finessing the facts (Rayon and Dr Saks are fictional, representations of multiple characters in Ron’s real life; the real Ron Woodroof was reportedly bisexual and not particularly homophobic) it’s made things appear less ambiguous, more black and white, arguably reducing the emotional punch of the narrative. It must be a tough balance, staying true to the facts while keeping a story entertaining. Real-life is messy and inconsistent and does it really matter if some characters have been invented or exaggerated, if events have been simplified or prettied up a little? If the line between art and reality gets blurred does it detract from a movie’s value?

In this case I say no. Dallas Buyers Club is still a compelling film with a heart and a message and there’s nothing so very bad about that.

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12 Years a Slave

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If 12 Years a Slave weren’t based on a true story I would find it hard to believe that the events depicted had not been exaggerated for the sake of melodrama. I found it so brutal, so shocking and so uncomfortable that it would have been preferable to believe that it had been embellished. But this is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free man living in New York in 1841 who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana where he endures for 12 years before finally managing to secure his release.

This is pre-Civil War, pre-abolition America and director Steve McQueen’s portrait of slavery is a million miles away from the romantic Gone with the Wind depiction of avuncular plantation owners, kind mistresses and contented slaves. It’s relentless in its portrayal of the casual cruelty and violence experienced by Solomon and his fellow slaves – I’ve heard it criticized for being gratuitous and unnecessary but apparently the book on which it’s based contains far worse atrocities.
While there’s little let-up in the misery there are unexpected moments of kindness and beauty. The cinematography is sublime washing the landscapes with a peachy glow – sunrise over a Southern swamp, glassy water, flowing Spanish moss and overhanging trees – I found these scenes so evocative that they completely drew me into Solomon’s world. McQueen is not afraid to let the camera linger and often leaves the horror on the screen to be absorbed in total silence (I’m thinking of one scene in particular, part-way through the movie that’s almost impossible to watch for that reason, like trying not to look at a car crash). And because the score (by Hans Zimmer) is so sparing, the space only enhances the power of what is being witnessed.

The cast is uniformly superb but the following performances stood out for me: Lupita Nyong’o as the young slave-girl Patsey who steadily has her spirit broken through relentless abuse; Paul Dano (condemned I fear to a career playing greasy and spineless losers) as racist overseer’s mate John Tibeats; Michael Fassbender chillingly disturbing as the monstrous and sadistic plantation owner Epps and Sarah Paulson as his vicious, jealous wife (hard to decide who’s more repellant). And, of course, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is mesmerizing as Solomon – his face so expressive that there’s often no need for him to speak. The only vaguely weak link was Brad Pitt,  his character is arguably the most pivotal but I found him the least convincing.

At the risk of joining the hyperbolic chorus I found watching this movie a profound experience – I truly don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it. It’s an exquisitely made film; beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, horrifying and compelling in equal measure.