Sunday, February 16, 2014

Best of 2013 #4: Dallas Buyers Club (Process, Pace, and Motivation)

Warning: I will once again throw some mud on Mud
  • Revelation vs. Process: This is simply one of the best movies about medicine ever made, both about the peculiar evils of the American system and the painful universal dilemmas doctors and patients face everywhere. I wrote about how seeing a hero confront a character with information is often more interesting than watching the hero acquire that information, but this movie did the opposite: using masterful montages to show the process of McConaughey’s epic journey each step of the way, and making it fascinating. How did it do that? Well here’s a big part: It made sure to...
  • Embrace Teleportation: I loved how quickly this movie moved. As soon as you begin to suspect what might happen next, we suddenly leap ahead a few weeks and land knee-deep into the middle of that plot turn. We never see McConaughey make the decision to do the next thing: “Wait just a second, I just had a big idea, what if we…” We just see that he has made a big decision, and he’s already facing the next big complication. We’re constantly playing catch-up…which is exactly what we want. (More on this when I discuss my #1 movie)
  • Non-Selfless Motivation: I’ve always felt that he was a potentially great actor, so I was happy when I heard the buzz that this would be the “Year of McConaughey”…but then I saw Mud first and felt like I was in Bizarro-World: now I was the one saying that his performance was too pretty-boy, too charismatic, and too reliant on gee-shucks tricks, turning what was supposed to be a scary homeless outlaw into a big old sexy teddy bear. So now I came to this movie with my guard up…which just made his utterly-vanity-free performance all the more impressive. Not only did he ruin his looks, but he played this reptilian scheming bigot without a single “love-me” tic…which just meant that America was finally given a chance to fall in love with McConaughey on our terms, not his.
Next: #3!


j.s. said...

So when something is supposedly "based on a true story" or "inspired by true events" or whatever how much does fidelity to the details matter to you? I know you've written scripts about real historical personages yourself. I assume you're aware of some of the many critiques of THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB based on what sound to me pretty pertinent details of the protagonist's life. Like whether he may have been bisexual and contracted AIDS through same sex contact rather than IV drug use; whether his alleged homophobia was exaggerated or invented out of whole cloth for the fiction film; along with the whole character Jared Leto plays, who didn't exist in real life.

This film felt like Oscar bait to me and the more I heard about some of the choices the screenwriter made in fictionalizing and dramatizing the story, the more it seemed willing to lie to the audience in order to create a more digestible hero, and so the less I wanted to see it.

Whereas, the more I found out about real details of the story behind CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, for example, the more I admired the way in which that film managed to stay true to the most important details.

Your problem with his performance in MUD is more of a writing/casting/directing problem than an acting one, though. And if I were going to single out a miscast star, it would instead be Resse Witherspoon.

Anyway, just wait until you see his turn as the anti-natalist nihilist homicide cop in TRUE DETECTIVE.

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, I think it was a mistake to pretend that this was based on a true story when every character except Ron was invented from whole cloth and Ron seems heavily fictionalized. I think it would have been better to go the "American Hustle" route, change the name, and merely imply that this is somewhat based on true events.

j.s. said...

I don't even like the film all that much, but I'd say that David O. Russell's radical rewrite of AMERICAN HUSTLE gets away with it because it's a comedy, because it's humorously playing fast and loose with any truth claims from the very first title card ("Some of this actually happened."), because most people don't know or remember the details of ABSCAM and because none of those details are presented as a key narrative developments in the film itself or a as selling point of the story in any of the marketing.

It seems to me it would be awfully hard to pull that off with more serious drama like DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, especially one where so many of the details of the main character's life seem so crucial to both what the filmmakers and the marketers think will make people want to see it.

The decisions to smooth out Ron's rough edges strike me as the worst kind of (self)censorship. One that wants to take full advantage of an unlikely hero, of sensational subject matter and of a number of striking ironies -- all magnified by the fact that they actually happened in real life. But with a kind of hypocrisy that wants to at one and the same time reserve the absolute right to retroactively edit those same true details to both remove less palatable ambiguities and to amp up tensions that make the story more trailer worthy and the protagonist more relatable. See how Ron (clearly not bisexual) was a straight woman loving cowboy just like y'all! See how Ron was even reflexively homophobic (not, of course, actually), just like y'all! See how Ron chose to become a sort of cowboy Christ -- ministering to the junkies, the whores, the transsexuals, the homosexuals -- only when he realized these people were the target market of his Dallas Buyer's Club! It's capitalist cowboy Christ to y'all! (Because, even though, by most accounts, he actually did, we know y'all need to believe Ron would never have associated with that sort before he was sick and needed to buy and sell experimental drugs to save his own life).

It would almost be like if some star had wanted to make your Alan Turing script (say 10-15 years ago for perfect cultural timing), but with just a few changes so that both the audience and he would find the character more relatable. Like what if you changed the fact that Turing was charged with indecency for his homosexuality and convicted because he admitted to a truth he felt no more reason to hide... What if you changed that to something like this -- the lonely socially awkward bachelor Turing was _falsely_ accused of homosexuality by enemies out to destroy his legacy. You see? Because more people can relate to being tainted by the implication of queerness than to actually being gay. And that way the big movie star wouldn't really have to pretend to be gay either.

Loverboy said...

People don't have to relate to being gay, people relate to being a victim of injustice.

I haven't watched Dallas Buyers Club, but I've read the screenplay and didn't care much for the story. Even after all the praise, praise that American Hustle is also getting and I did watch that one and didn't like it.

If you aren't watching True Detective, Matt, you really should. It's the best cable drama in years, probably the best since The Wire.