This wild stallion’s in heat. No, not all those fine equine specimens parading around the rodeo in the opening scene of Dallas Buyers Club. I’m talking about bull rider Ron Woodroof, who at this moment is busy, um, frolicking with a young woman in what is clearly unprotected intercourse. Deep in the heart of Texas.
Why is this detail important? Ronnie, you see, has AIDS, only he doesn’t know it yet. But why would he worry about catching a disease like that? He’s a hot-blooded male, straight as an arrow. Everybody knows only queers catch the H-I-V. So what’s with the coughing fits, cowboy? Dizzy spells that hit you all of a sudden?
The year is 1985, and the last thing Mr. Woodroof, played by a nearly unrecognizable Matthew McConaughey, is expecting to hear when his blood work comes back is that he’s got the same illness that killed Rock Hudson. And tough luck for him, the impersonal, douchy Doc Sevard (esteemed character actor Denis O’Hare) has stamped an expiration day on his forehead: 30 days. Fellow doctor Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) is more sympathetic; she’s has already been treating other patients with the virus – including trannie firecracker Rayon (Jared Leto); we’ll get back to her in a bit – but you can’t help somebody who slaps your open hand away.
Dallas Buyers Club begins counting the days from that first diagnosis, as Ron, an electrician by trade, resorts to wily, not-exactly-legal measures to get his hands on AZT, a newfangled new drug proven to successfully treat the symptoms of AIDS … if you don’t mind a plethora of side effects which, as it turns out, Woodroof ‘s body is ill-equipped to handle. A trip to a Mexican clinic, and some wise counsel from disgraced Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), make him realize there’s a need – and a market – for alternative drugs north of the border.
It’s a grabber of a storyline, and French Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., Café de Flore) knows it, so he, naturally, delights us with his dazzling bag of stylistic tricks, right? Actually, no. Vallée’s approach to the material is unusually subdued, almost workmanlike. This is both good and bad. His point-and-shoot M.O. allows viewers to focus on the byzantine Big Pharma politics Woodroof is up against, detailed with storytelling economy in Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack’s absorbing screenplay. Still, one may well argue that Woodruff’s journey would have been enhanced by the flourishes that characterize the filmmaker’s previous work, even the more conventional romantic period piece The Young Victoria.
What begins as an episodic but still engaging character study gives way to a David-vs.-Goliath yarn that pits the stubbornly driven Woodroof against the government bureaucracy that’s keen on shuttering his titular operation, a club that, for a fee, grants members access to drugs from other countries that are being developed to fight AIDS. But how does a reed-thin homophobe make headway with the clientele that would benefit the most from his business venture? Enter sassy, in-your-face Rayon, who forces Woodroof to confront his own prejudice. It all leads to a potent but still didactic clash at a supermarket in which T.J. (Kevin Rankin), one of Ron’s former friends, makes fun of Rayon, and Ron’s having none of it. Leto tears into the role, persuasively conveying the character’s no-nonsense resolve while never losing sight of her vulnerability, particularly in a touching scene in which Rayon dons men’s clothes to visit her estranged dad. I wish Borten and Wallack hadn’t made Rayon’s drug addiction such a defining trait, an approach that only heightens the film’s social-problem-chronicle trappings.
Dallas Buyers Club hints at exploring more intimate layers of a man whose resilience in the face of death gave him the strength to keep fighting, and McConaughey rises to the challenge with tour-de-force abandon. The actor’s hungry to showcase his chops, and he does not disappoint. Woodroof’s an ideal fit for the versatile actor, even if he doesn’t quite prevent the movie from turning into a red-state Philadelphia. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but as Ronnie embarks on a legal fight against the corporate baddies to whom he repeatedly gave the finger, Dallas Buyers Club tempers its antihero’s free spirit by placing him into a fairly tidy, albeit nuanced, portrait of life in the age of AIDS.
If Vallée’s film could have benefited from being a tad more thematically ambitious, Kill Your Darlings, an R-rated afterschool special masquerading as an edgy Beat generation drama, undoubtedly bites off more than it can chew. But don’t blame Daniel Radcliffe, who imbues a Columbia University-bound Allen Ginsberg with the requisite brooding, this-bohemian-decadence-is-all-new-to-me appeal. I admit I was hard on the star of the Harry Potter series when he starred in the stillborn chiller The Woman in Black as his first high-profile post-Hogwarts movie project, but here he shows a laudable commitment to his craft, even though the film that surrounds him is afflicted with a nasty case of literary icon worship.
Kill Your Darlings is what Gene Siskel would have described as a “whisper” movie. Who’s that weird young man who looks like he’s aping Crispin Glover? That’s my cue to whisper, “That’s William Burroughs.” Actually, it’s Ben Foster as Burroughs, and you wish director/co-screenwriter John Krokidas had used him more. Who’s the raven-haired kid with all the swag? Come closer, let me whisper in your ear, “That’s Jack Kerouac,” although as portrayed by Jack Huston, you start wishing he’d go away altogether.
What Krokidas’ film gets right: It interweaves Ginsberg’s quest to find his status quo-defying voice as an artist with his burgeoning sexuality. Kill Your Darlings alternates between cringe-worthy moments in which the marginalized budding authors proclaim their anti-authoritarian worldview and a reasonably compelling romantic triangle involving an infatuated Ginsberg, damaged-goods trust-fund brat Lucien Carr (Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan) and the clingy David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), AKA Carr’s doormat. DeHaan is a suitably icy object of desire, but there’s a discernible lack of sexual heat in the scenes where he attempts to manipulate the men who lust after him. It’s the kind of role one imagines the young Jude Law excelling at if this movie had been made in the 90s.
Krokidas relies too much on the murder case that gives Kill Your Darlings its narrative structure. Tossed to the margins is the more interesting tale of a budding artist who discovers he only thinks he’s a wallflower. In the film’s most memorable scene, a disenchanted Ginsberg cruises the man who will deflower him. Will he just lie down in bed, face down and submissive? Not on your life. Radcliffe succeeds in turning a sexual position into an act of empowerment. You can leave doggie-style shenanigans to narrow-minded Texas cowboys.
Kill Your Darlings starts Friday, Nov. 15 at Regal Cinemas South Beach, the Cinemark Paradise in Davie and the Classic Gateway Theatre (thegatewaytheatre.com). That same day, Dallas Buyers Club opens for business at Regal Cinemas South Beach, AMC Aventura, AMC Sunset Place and the Gateway.