Tag Archives: B+

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

Viewers will be shocked at Matthew McConaughey’s emaciated appearance but—given the string of extraordinary performances he’s given since “The Lincoln Lawyer”—not the quality of his acting in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

McConaughey lost forty pounds to play Ron Woodroof, a Dallas electrician working the rodeo circuit who’s diagnosed as HIV-positive during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. A volatile, randy, hard-drinking fellow often in trouble with the law, he’s also instinctively homophobic (a trait which, if the recollections of those who knew him are accurate, the script exaggerates for dramatic effect), and insists that the doctors who give him the news after he’s brought in following a work-related accident must be wrong. But when he finds himself as shunned by his former friends as gay sufferers are by society at large, his attitudes gradually change.

That dramatic arc, however, is spurred by his immediate incentive to procure whatever drugs might be available, even on a trial basis, to treat the infection. Unable to get into the group testing AZT under the guidance of the very pair of physicians who diagnosed him, Woodroof bribes an orderly to steal the medicine for him, and when that avenue is closed drives to Mexico, where expatriate American Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne) tells him that AZT is toxic and provides him with alternatives—vitamins and supplements as well as meds as yet unapproved by the FDA.

That sets off dollars signs in Woodroof’s head, and soon he’s smuggling the items into Texas as a commodity much in demand in the gay community, eventually going worldwide to secure the meds he wants. But rather than trying to sell them outright, he follows a clever distribution scheme. He sells memberships in a club, one of the perks of which is a monthly supply ostensibly for free—and he enlists to serve as a star salesman among his potential customers Rayon (Jared Leto), a drug-addict transsexual who was part of the AZT test group.

From this point “Dallas Buyers Club” turns into a David-and-Goliath story, with Woodroof facing off against FDA officials, who use every legal avenue at their disposal to shut his business down while continuing to promote the promise of AZT, despite dangerous side-effects of the drug. The implication, of course, is that the agency’s actions were incited by pressure—and perhaps financial incentives—from the pharmaceutical companies that could profit enormously from sales of their product. As the conflict escalates, Eve Sacks (pretty Jennifer Garner), one of the two doctors involved in the trials, gradually emerges as Ron’s principled, rebellious ally, while the other, Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare), aligns himself with the establishment and the myopia it represents. And, of course sparks fly between Ron and Eve, though for obvious reasons their relationship must remain platonic. Ultimately litigation will be required.

To a great extent the film, written by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack and ably directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, follows conventions familiar from previous pictures. Woodroof’s transformation from hostile bigot to understanding, sympathetic brother to the gay community stretches back to Jonathan Demme’s twenty-year old “Philadelphia,” in which the lawyer played by Denzel Washington followed much the same emotional trajectory. More generally, the tactic of using an outsider to a mistreated community to make a story more accessible to viewers who might well be outsiders to it themselves, rather than just telling the story from within, is an old one that was repeatedly employed, for instance, in films about the civil rights struggle. (This would be a very different tale if Rayon were its central character, instead of a fictionalized catalyst to Woodroof’s transformation.) And, of course, the little-guy-against-the-system aspect of the narrative is an age-old device—one need only think of “Erin Brockovich,” for example.

Yet “Dallas Buyers Club” works, mostly because of McConaughey’s electrifying performance, which makes Woodroof the sort of high-octane rogue it’s impossible to dislike. And his triumph is closely matched by Leto’s, an inspired piece of work that even puts across a clumsy scene in which Rayon visits his estranged father in hopes of getting money to keep the club afloat. Together the two also manage to pull off the predictable scene in which Woodroof uses physical force to compel a bigoted friend (Kevin Rankin) to treat Rayon courteously rather than spit out insults at him.

Otherwise the cast aren’t terribly well used, with Garner stuck in a stock part and even Steve Zahn able to do little with the role of a Dallas cop who’s sympathetic to the trouble-making Woodroof. But Dunne underplays nicely as Dr. Vass, who’s essentially the instigator of it all. The mid-eighties milieu is reasonably well caught, and the general grubbiness of Woodroof’s world is certainly captured by production designer John Paino, art director Javiera Varas, set decorator Robert Covelman and costume designers Kurt and Bart, with similarly gritty cinematography by Yves Belanger. But it has to be noted that the picture wasn’t shot in Dallas, and the locations aren’t really a convincing simulacrum of the city, looking more like Louisiana (not surprising, since that’s where it was filmed).

“Dallas Buyers Club” can be criticized for shoehorning its story into a familiar framework to make it more comfortable for mainstream audiences. But the astonishing turns by McConaughey and Leto nonetheless give it a powerful charge.

12 YEARS A SLAVE

It’s difficult, indeed impossible, not to be moved by the story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man in New York who was kidnapped by slave traders and, after twelve years in bondage in Louisiana between 1841 and 1853, finally liberated, going on to write a memoir of his horrendous experience that appeared almost simultaneously with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and was briefly almost as widely read. “12 Years a Slave,” adapted (with some streamlining and simplification) by screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen from that book, certainly depicts the inhumane treatment Northrup suffered under even the most enlightened of his “masters” (not to mention the purely sadistic ones), and for that reason alone it’s a significant contribution to an art form that has generally tiptoed around the nation’s original sin up until now.

But McQueen dilutes the visceral impact of the story by too often succumbing to the artiness and visual affectation that so strongly characterized the style of his two earlier pictures, “Hunger” and “Shame.” As a result his film is an important work, but one that’s more potent on an intellectual level than an emotional one. It might be argued that the distancing of McQueen’s approach mirrors the somewhat anomalous situation of his subject. Northrup, after all, was different from most of his fellow slaves in that he had known an America where, though his civil rights were circumscribed by his color, at least he was not treated as property. As portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor with exceptional nuance, Solomon is introduced, after a brief prologue showing him working in a sugar cane field, as a musician in Saratoga Springs, where he lives comfortably with his wife and two young daughters. Enticed to Washington D.C. by two fast-talking men with an offer of well-paying employment, he’s wined and dined, only to find himself in a dismal cell the next morning, shackled and charged as a fugitive slave ready for transport “back” to the south. (McQueen demonstrates his penchant for visual emphasis—or overemphasis—at the end of this sequence by pulling the camera up from the courtyard in which Northrup must bathe to show the Capitol as the immediate background of his mistreatment.)

Northrup is then shipped, along with others similarly snatched, to New Orleans, where a slave trader ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti) sells him to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). The sequence is enlivened by Giamatti’s tense, flamboyant performance, and given extra punch by the anguish of another slave, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who’s separated from her children, who are sold separately. That begins the more benign stage of Northrup’s—or Platt’s, as he’s been renamed—ordeal. Ford proves a relatively decent owner, a man conflicted about the societal system he’s part of but afraid to rebel against, and willing to embrace—and use—his slave’s expertise in the lumber business. Such moderation, however, is no part of the character of Ford’s chief carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano, once again doing his maniacal shtick perfectly), a vicious racist who enjoys humiliating Platt until the slave turns on him, to be saved from death only by Ford’s intervention. The closing sequence of this chapter, in which Northrup hangs suspended from a tree while the other slaves go about their business seemingly oblivious to his plight, is another of McQueen’s artful touches, perhaps intended as a rebuke to the famous long crane shot of the burning of Atlanta in “Gone With the Wind,” only one picture whose romanticized portrait of Dixie “12 Years” is designed to demolish.

Ford thereupon transfers ownership of Platt to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a steely-eyed psychotic whose affair with sensual slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) leads his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson) to egg her husband on to ever greater cruelties. McQueen uses Epps to represent the depths of depravity in the supposedly genteel southern racist culture, depicting him brutalizing slaves for failing to pick enough cotton each day and not only beating Patsey nearly to death when she displeases him but forcing Platt to participate in the gruesome act—a long scene that will force many viewers to avert their eyes. Ultimately it’s only the intervention of an abolitionist-minded Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), to whom Northrup confides his history and who informs the man’s New York friends of his situation, that secures Northrup’s release and tearful reunion with his family.

There’s so much that’s superb in “12 Years a Slave”—the intense performances by Ejiofor and Fassbender, an astonishingly vivid turn by Nyong’o, and stellar work from Giamatti, Cumberbatch, Dano and Paulson—that its failings are all the more regrettable. In addition to McQueen’s tendency to choose an arty visual alternative too often—perhaps encouraged by the almost painterly images fashioned by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt—there are lapses toward the close that suggest that both the director and Ridley were running dry. That’s unfortunately most evident in the scenes featuring Pitt, who also served as one of the producers. Bass’s pronouncements are the only elements in the film that come across as preachy, largely because Pitt’s delivery lacks the concentration and urgency that might make them seem like firmly-held convictions rather than words on a page. The final scenes of Epps’s fury over being denuded of his property and Solomon’s return to his family right matters, but the damage lingers. As was the case with Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” McQueen’s film is impeccable in its period detail, with the production design (Adam Stockhausen), costumes (Patricia Norris), art direction (David Stein) and set decoration (Alice Baker) all estimable.

McQueen’s film, in fact, invites comparison to Spielberg, not only in terms of “Lincoln” (which, after all, dealt with slavery more indirectly), but “Schindler’s List,” which dealt with another of the most barbarous realities of human history and also ended in a victory that seems very small in relation to the horrors that surrounded it. “12 Years a Slave” will be termed by many the best film about slavery in the United States that’s ever been made, but that has little meaning, as there have been so few of them, and those there are not terribly good. One’s appreciation of it is muted, however, by the realization that it could have been better still.