** (out of 5)
By Alistair Ryder (@YesItsAlistair)
A quick glance at this year’s nominations for Best Picture at the Oscars tell you that this is one of the best years for cinema in recent years, and one of the most varied- this is a field where a harrowing account of American slavery can rub shoulders with sci-fi space thrillers and black comedies about the excesses of the finance industry. It’s a year when box ticking Oscar bait movies that follow tried and tested narrative formulas have almost been entirely shut out- with one notable exception.
Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story (first Oscar-bait box ticked) of Ron Woodruff, a homophobic arse who is given 30 days to live after being diagnosed with HIV. With no cures available on the American medical system, he makes a name for himself smuggling “alternative treatments” into the States from Mexico, Japan and everywhere in-between.
He then sells this back to the other victims of the disease, and as he learns that the LGBT community aren’t that different from him, realizes it’s okay to exploit them for monetary gain, like the redneck Oscar Schindler.
Matthew McConnaughey’s central performance as Woodruff is probably the weakest since his big career comeback in “Killer Joe” two years ago. Following in the footsteps of many actors before him who have either lost weight (Christian Bale in “The Machinist”) or put on weight (Robert de Niro, Rob Mcelhenney) in the hope of awards glory, his approach to method acting overshadows the fact that he doesn’t break any new ground with his performance- the exact opposite of every performance he’s given in the last two years, as well as being only a pale imitation of the aforementioned actors who gave vastly superior performances.
It actually falls down to Jared Leto to give the film’s best performance as fellow Dallas Buyers Club founder Rayon, a fellow AIDS patient whose transvestism helps Woodruff understand and/or exploit the gay community. After spending the last few years making pompous, self-aggrandising music (and even more pompous, self-aggrandising music videos) with 30 Seconds to Mars, the performance helps remind us that Leto was once one of the most reliable performers in American cinema, mainly for his role in Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream”. His performance doesn’t write off the past few years spent as the emo Bono (because the film surrounding it isn’t good enough to allow that), but it does suggest that he is capable of more good performances.
Because this is a Hollywood film all the AIDS sufferers other than Woodruff are ridiculous gay stereotypes, culminating in a laughably clichéd scene at a gay club that looks like a shot for shot remake of a Village People video, outfits and all. Whereas this Oscar season’s best film, 12 years a Slave, uses gritty realism to show the audience the full horrors of its subject matter, Dallas Buyers Club frequently resorts to stereotypes or ill-fitting comedic moments (Woodruff having a wank over a picture of Mark Bolan, thinking he’s a woman) that expose just how weak it is when approaching the serious nature of the HIV/AIDS virus.
I was left thinking about the “white people solve racism” Oscar bait movies of previous years, most notably “The Help”, and how they resort to comedic moments and stereotypes to avoid making any significant statement on the central issue, which means that Dallas Buyers Club can now be lumped in with them as a “homophobic people solve homophobia” movie due to its similar cluelessness as to how to address such a dark subject matter whilst still providing popcorn entertainment.
Four other best picture nominees this year are all based on true stories (12 years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street- American Hustle also opens by telling us that “some of this happened”). These are all successful in that they manage to balance out the grim truths of their subject matter with solid entertainment, be they hard hitting Slavery drama or Somali pirate thrillers. The film to which Dallas compares to the most is Philomena; without wanting to spoil the revelations of that film, all I’m going to say is it has a far better view of how to approach the AIDS issue without toning down its subject matter for a mainstream audience.
Dallas Buyers Club is the most overrated film of the past year.