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Texas cowboy Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) sees his freewheeling life overturned when he’s diagnosed as HIV-positive and given 30 days to live. Determined to survive, Woodroof decides to take matters in his own hands by tracking down alternative treatments from all over the world by means both legal and illegal. After his journey to find a cure leads him to an unlikely ally in Rayon (Jared Leto), he establishes a hugely successful 'buyers’ club' and unites a band of outcasts in a struggle for dignity and acceptance that inspires in ways no one could have imagined. (From Focus Feature’s original synopsis)

 Dallas Buyers Club
Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club is a trifecta of Oscar-friendly filmmaking: 1: It’s based on an uplifting true story. 2: That true story gives the actors a valid excuse to undergo radical physical transformations. 3: Despite taking place in a bygone era, the story is used to deliver a very modern message. This all may sound formulaic (and it is), but what’s interesting about Dallas Buyer’s Club is that it’s not delivering the message movie you’d assume it would be, based on the trailers and synopsis. Movies like Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia and Gus Van Sant’s Milk already used dramatic historical context to deliver a message of tolerance for the homosexual community and people suffering from HIV/AIDS. Recent social moments seem to verify that those messages seem to have been received. Dallas Buyers Club is using dramatic historical context to deliver a message about corruption in the American healthcare system. The facts of ‘Big Pharma’s’ part in the AIDS crisis (or at least the facts of one side of the argument) have been the focus of numerous, highly-acclaimed documentaries lately, including David France’s How to Survive a Plague and Brent Leung’s House of Numbers, but there hasn’t been a dramatic look at the event.

The true story is already interesting enough to sustain an provocative feature, so Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s Academy Award-nominated screenplay’s real value is in the way it unravels its plot. At its best, the tale is told via Ron’s experience alone, cutting briskly through the events and locations without stopping to explain every single little repercussion. This editing pattern works so well that it’s jarring to cut to any other character’s point of view. Suddenly, the audience is made aware of the artificiality of Vallée’s cinéma vérité camerawork. Poor Jennifer Garner, who gives an otherwise moving performance, becomes the harbinger of doom as the subject of most of these miscalculated moments. Further problems with the story arise as the true-life story starts to slide into the biopic template, hitting the bases in a disappointingly Hollywood fashion and losing some major steam at the onset of the final act. It’s not that Vallée and the screenwriters are bad at the mainstream thing (they’re actually very good at it) – it’s that the precedent set during the first act (which is revisited somewhat at the end) is significantly more engaging.

 Dallas Buyers Club
McConaughey and Leto have also both been nominated for Oscars in roles seemingly tailor-made for the distinction. It’s difficult not to be a little dubious of performances that include rapid weight loss, but both actors achieve more than frightening physical transformations. I’ve read articles referring to McConaughey’s second wind following his downfall at the hands of dreck, like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch, as his ‘McConaissance.’ I adore this term and find it absolutely apt, not only because the actor’s recent work feels like a full-on creative renaissance, but because it doesn’t take the evolution too seriously. So much of of McConaughey’s enduring popularity is found in his refusal to take himself with more than a grain of salt. He isn’t only aiming for award-shilling roles (though I’d love the chicken-eating scene from Killer Joe to make an appearance at the Oscars); he’s creating an entire brand of southern-fried protagonist/antagonist and showing an incredible breadth of talent in the process. Leto has an even more difficult job, he has to make a character as flamboyant as Rayon into a full-fledged human being – one that will move Ron to change. But it is the chemistry the two actors have together and that their relationship isn’t treated in an overly sentimental manner that gives the film its emotional core. The affection isn’t expressed with swooning close-ups and swirling music – it is presented truthfully with a wink and a nod.

 Dallas Buyers Club

Video


Dallas Buyers Club was shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and is presented here in 1080p, 2.35:1 video. Vallée and cinematographer Yves Bélanger shoot a lot of the film handheld, under limited source lighting and with shallow, tight focus. This rough, off-the-cuff look is then contrasted with the significant clarity of the Alexa system. The cinéma vérité shake and persistent darkness of some scenes hinder detail on occasion, leading to minor fits of digital noise, but, generally, lines are crisp and textures are complex, without any edge enhancement to complain about. The colour palette changes quite a bit between locations. Most daylight exteriors scenes are yellow, warm, and dusty with blown-out white lights. Most interiors are cooler with stronger highlights, especially the raunchy reds that mark various locations as ‘seedy.’ The Mexican locations are the most profoundly colour-graded and feature a major uptake in the usual orange & teal hues. Throughout all of these changes, black levels remain deep and pure, though not at the risk of the smoother blends Vallée and Bélanger use during the darker scenes.

 Dallas Buyers Club

Audio


This Blu-ray carries the typical DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. You might expect a movie on this scale to be little limited on the audio front, but this is actually a full-bodied track that makes good use of all five channels. The sound design is divided between hyper-realistic ambience and the more subjective sounds from within Ron’s head. The subjective stuff is more aggressively stylized, especially moments when the character’s ears ring and the rest of the sound is sucked out of the scene. The ambience is more impressive, however, because it moves sound so subtly throughout the channels that you might not even notice it. There aren’t any brassy directional cues flying out of the rear speakers, but the atmosphere is effectively recreated. Composer Alexandra Stréliski provides some minor score, but, in keeping with the hyper-realism, the bulk of Dallas Buyers Club’s musical soundtrack is made up of period pop/rock/country songs being played on radios or other sound systems (there are maybe two moments when Vallée breaks this pattern and lets his acquired music crackle and bounce, unhindered by ‘realism’).

Extras


The special features are brief, including only three deleted scenes (5:00, HD), A Look Inside Dallas Buyers Club (4:00, HD), an extended trailer with some cast interviews, and trailers for other Focus Features releases.

 Dallas Buyers Club

Overall


Dallas Buyers Club is the best brand of Oscar bait. It has some issues with structure, specifically when conforming to the biopic formula, but also manages to be emotionally stirring without seeping into cloying sentiment. It isn’t my pick for Best Picture, but I’d still recommend it as highly as any of the films on that list. Universal/Focus Features’ Blu-ray looks sharp and comes fitted with an outstanding DTS-HD MA soundtrack. The extras are, unfortunately, almost non-existent, aside from a small set of deleted scenes and a promo piece.

 Dallas Buyers Club

 Dallas Buyers Club

 Dallas Buyers Club

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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