By Wheeler Winston Dixon.
Matthew McConaughey is an excellent actor, and Lord knows he’s working enough these days, and he brings real fire and presence to every role he attacks. But with the exception of Steven Soderbergh’s criminally underrated Magic Mike, McConaughey’s films often don’t live up to their initial promise. Such is the case with McConaughey’s latest film, Dallas Buyers Club, based on a true story, and indifferently directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. The source material is absolutely solid; homophobic good old boy Ron Woodroof lives a non-stop lifestyle of booze, coke, cigarettes and rodeo riding, until he discovers that he’s HIV positive after a trip to the hospital.
Initially indignant, and given 30 days to live by his doctors, Woodruff sets out on a one man crusade to prove them wrong, smuggling unapproved drugs into the States as a “Buyers Club,” and befriending numerous members of the gay community in the process, in particular the flamboyant Rayon (Jared Leto in a standout performance), as he battles against the ravages of the disease and confounds the medical establishment. Eventually, the sympathetic Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) comes around to Woodruff’s way of thinking, and sacrifices her career when she realizes that conventional treatments against HIV/AIDS are far from effective; indeed, they may well be lethal.
With his rodeo pals deserting him, and the future far from certain, Woodruff manages to hang on for another seven years through a variety of off-the-menu drug cocktails, many of which he obtains while travelling in Mexico from the disgraced Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne, looking an awful lot like Jerry Garcia in his last years). The first forty-five minutes of the film are riveting, but by the end, the nascent love affair between Dr. Zaks and Woodruff (as conveyed by a series of longing gazes) overwhelms the film, which ends with a conventional courtroom decision upholding the established order, and Woodruff’s off-screen death, announced in an after-title.
Looking at McConaughey’s newer films, you can see that he’s taking real risks; we are a long, long way from Mark Waters’ Ghosts of Girlfriends Past here, which is a good thing. But each new “indie” film McConaughey now makes seems to have some sort of inherent flaw in its construction, even as it seeks to depart from conventional multiplex fare. McConaughey’s turn in Richard Linklater’s excellent Bernie as law officer Danny Buck is a solid piece of work, but for a man of McConaughey’s talents, it’s practically sleepwalking; in any event, it’s really Jack Black’s film, in the title role, and a great performance at that.
In William Friedkin’s much overrated Killer Joe McConaughey knocks it out of the park as the title character, Killer Joe Cooper, even as the script’s ridiculously overheated sex scenes push the film into parody; as Ward Jansen in Lee Daniels’ delirious The Paperboy, McConaughey is equally superb, but is overwhelmed by the film’s no-holds-barred narrative; while Jeff Nichols’ Mud is an earnest after school special, which McConaughey strolls through without breaking a sweat.
McConaughey has yet to make the real breakthrough film that will really establish him as a major presence on the screen; a role that isn’t so much about violence, or brutality, or breaking taboos, or the sentimental molasses of Mud. I honestly don’t know what that film will be, but I do know this; McConaughey is a superb actor, at the top of his game, capable of taking on genuinely risky projects.
I hope he takes on more offbeat projects in the future, and that, in the final reels, they don’t succumb to the supposed demand of audience expectations. Sadly, Dallas Buyers Club is a film that ultimately fails itself, even as its star continues to shine. And of course, McConaughey won an Academy Award for Best Actor for the film, because it plays it safe precisely when it needs to break out and bleed through the screen; just what the Academy wants in a film, faux risk without any real threat.
Catching Fire is another film with oversize ambition and undersize execution. Hail, hail, the gang’s all here, but this time around, they’re rumbling through town like an oversize freight train, intent on vacuuming up as much as cash as they possibly can, and extending the franchise if possible, before the whole thing crashes and burns in a flaming wreck. Catching Fire isn’t so much a movie as a series of scenes in which cardboard characters go through a sequence of predictable paces, made even less compelling this time around because everyone knows what’s going to happen; it’s an exercise in overblown repetition.
Stalwart Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is once again pressed into service in a new round of Hunger Games, while tyrannical President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) rigs the games to kill all the previous winners by pitting them against each other in a special 75th anniversary edition of the contest. This time around, Snow is assisted by the newly installed Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) as his “games master,” while Katniss is aided by her old cohorts Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), as she readies herself for the competition, which is once again emceed by the unctuous Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and his fey sidekick Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones).
But things don’t go as smoothly for President Snow as they did in the initial entry of the trilogy; in fact, there’s already an insurrection brewing at the start of the film, and inevitably, the unrest snowballs until it threatens to engulf Snow’s dreams of empire. The film is certainly elaborate enough. The production design is appropriately Riefenstahlian, the sets are grandiose and overblown, the special effects are state of the art, and the combat sequences are suitably violent for a PG 13 project, but the film never, shall we say, catches fire.
I was no fan on the initial installment in the series, which was directed by Gary Ross, and I had hoped for better thing from director Francis Lawrence, who helmed both this movie, and is now shooting the third and presumably final entry in the series. Ross’s film seemed, at the time, caricaturish and slow, but Catching Fire is even more leaden than its predecessor, and at 146 minutes in running time needs cutting by at least a third.
But the big surprise for me is that the actors seem to have been left to their own devices to flesh out their roles; Sutherland, who was the best thing about the first film as the exquisitely corrupt Snow, had very little screen time, but made the most of every word he uttered. Here, his role has been considerably expanded, but his villainy now seems flat and forced, and rather than the restraint he displayed in the first film, here, he seems to take it directly over the top.
The same can be said for all the other actors, who walk through their roles with a minimum of conviction, hitting their marks and saying their lines with robotic precision, but never once giving their characters a modicum of believability. Harrelson strolls through the film, relying for the most part on his character’s alcoholism to gain some traction, while Kravitz, who was quite affecting in the first film, is reduced here to nearly a cameo guest shot. Jennifer Lawrence alone attacks her part with energy and conviction, but the dragging pace and flaccid construction of the film, which takes forever to get off the ground and into the games, leaves her with little to work with.
But what’s perhaps most offensive about the film is that, like V for Vendetta and similarly “anti-authoritarian” mainstream films, Catching Fire argues for “revolution” in the face of social inequity, while at the same time actually working to support the status quo. In the future world of Panem, as in so many dystopian films going all the way back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the ruling class lives in decadent luxury, while the workers who support their lavish life style starve and freeze in the provinces.
It’s just like the US today; 99% of the populace work to support the ruling class, but rather than doing anything about it, we’re content to spend our time at the multiplex contemplating faux revolutionary tracts, rather than doing anything to bring about real social change. Thus, the film’s “shock ending” – with its attendant message of hope for the masses – is nothing more than a sop to those who dream of such a revolution, an insurrection that will never come.
But today, apparently, comic book films like The Dark Knight and its ilk seem to be all we can hope for on a mass scale; the days of the smaller, more thoughtful films have long since vanished with rise of massive theatre chains, nation state movie studios, and hegemonic distribution patterns that concentrate solely on the blockbuster films at the expense of everything else.
It’s sad to note that Donald Sutherland took on the project because, as he told writer Rob Keyes, “I felt that it could be another Battle of Algiers.” It’s a long way from Gillo Pontecorvo’s film to this, but every generation gets the films it deserves, and it seems that right now, the comic book and YA crowd want simplistic visions of a dysfunction world set right by a single heroic figure. It’s a superhero, or heroine concept that appeals to the child in all of us, even if it offers no real hope of change.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the journal Cinespect.
Wheeler Winston Dixon writes regularly for Film International.
For more on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, see what our Review Editor had to say here.