Dallas Buyer's Club ****
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
In 2007, I wrote my dissertation on the portrayal of HIV and AIDS in cinema, so whenever a film comes out revolving around the issue, I’m automatically predisposed to be critical. In my thesis, I tore Philadelphia and Rent to pieces, bemoaning the standard Hollywood sanitisation of an issue that really shouldn’t be sanitised. But in 2014, more than thirty years since the beginning of this global pandemic, a film has finally been released that adequately explores the issue and all the politicised outrage that surrounds it. But while Dallas Buyers Club may well be a film about AIDS, it’s more about the scandalous behaviour of pharmaceutical firms and the FDA and it’s refreshing to watch a film about AIDS that’s not wholly and solely about someone’s infection and journey with the disease.
Ron Woodruff (McConaughey) is a rodeo cowboy who enjoys sex, drugs and booze. His whole world is thrown into disarray however when he’s diagnosed with HIV. From all of his drug use, he has significantly lowered his T-cell levels and is subsequently given 30 days to live. He begins to read up on the disease and its treatments, but is told by his doctor (Garner) that some seemingly effective treatments from abroad cannot be distributed unless they have been approved FDA. Travelling to Mexico, he begins a cocktail of drugs and finds that his condition vastly improves. Told that AZT, the HIV treatment the US government is pushing, is actually doing its patients more harm than good, Woodruff starts illegally importing unapproved drugs into Dallas where he sets up the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, where people buy memberships rather than buying the drugs, therefore side-stepping his being classed as a drug-dealer. With the assistance of Rayon, a HIV positive drag queen (Leto), the Club begins distributing to AIDS patients, before long tempting the majority of them away from their doctors. As a result, the FDA begin to look into why their numbers of patients are decreasing. While this is a superbly crafted piece of cinema, central to this film are two sensational performances. McConaughey gives a career-defining performance as Woodruff, while Jared Leto steals every scene in a supporting performance that glows from the screen. McConaughey’s Ron Woodruff is a striking character, whose blinkered world of hedonism is torn apart by the realisation of his own mortality. He is forced to turn his back on everything that has made him happy before (alcohol, cocaine and women) and live a life of sobriety, focused on his health. At times we see how difficult this is for him, yearning for the past life he enjoyed so much, but the film follows his journey from being someone on a path of self-destruction to becoming a person doggedly resolute that he will survive. It’s also refreshing to see that, while he is doing all he can to help his own disease, he is incredibly human in his recognising the opportunity to exploit a niche market; he sees a way to make money and takes it. The Dallas Buyers Club is a business venture for Woodruff, not a charity. But as time goes on, as the injustices mount up against him from the pharmaceutical companies determined to stop him helping people, his business-front begins to chip away to reveal a moral centre behind his macho façade. And the same goes toward his homophobia; on diagnosis, Woodruff is incensed that anyone could believe him a homosexual, but as he becomes more and more involved with a dying community, he sees the person behind the abusive labels. This gradual journey toward compassion and empathy that McConaughey leads us through is amazing to watch and as moving as the depiction of the disease itself.
It’s been six years since Leto made a film. If you’d have said six years ago that the next film he made would see him winning an Oscar, everyone would have thought you mad, but this is the kind of performance the supporting categories at awards shows were made for. Leto lifts every moment that he’s on the screen. Without his presence, the film would have been dry and bleak to watch, but instead we are presented with a colourful, vibrant and emotional heart that cuts through the machismo of Woodruff and all the clinical talk of drugs and treatments. There has been criticism that a trans actor wasn’t used to portray the role, but not for a second do you question that Rayon has been living his life as a woman for many years. The physical transformation of both these actors is remarkable, but while McConaughey keeps the emotion of Woodruff hidden behind his masculine front, Leto lets the emotions pour through Rayon, saying as much with a look or glance as a whole page of dialogue. This is one of the Great supporting performances. Behind these two amazing roles, it’s easy to overlook Jennifer Garner too. While her role is far more restrained, her emotions staid from her life in medicine, you can see the courage of her convictions burning through her stoicism. It’s a great role for Garner, proving how versatile and likeable she can be. Visually, the film film packs a few evocative punches, with some fast and juxtaposed editing, while some of its darker moments rely upon some clever sound editing, with music used greatly with the diagetic sound pulled out. Overall though, this is a film about its performances. Of the year’s Best Picture lineup, in which Dallas Buyers Club featured, it was probably at the bottom of the pile, but it’s still a fantastic watch. Its story is great, its characters entertaining, even if it drags a little toward the end, but it’s also a very informative film about a side to the AIDS crisis that I knew very little about before. It hints toward issues that Hollywood haven’t spoken about, that have only made it to the screen before via the documentary How To Survive A Plague. Just as it was about time someone made a film about slavery this year in 12 Years A Slave, it was about time someone made a good film about the AIDS crisis. It’s a bit disappointing to learn that both Leto’s and Garner’s characters are fictional, which leads to my minor gripe that a film essentially about the Gay Community and the issues facing it didn’t focus around a gay central character… But, regardless, the story it’s based upon is still fascinating and the film as a whole is great.
Available to download, stream and buy on DVD.