Release Date: November 22nd, 2013 (US); February 7th, 2014 (UK)
Genre: Biography; Drama; History
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner
About halfway through his moral readjustment and self-health stabilisation, Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof proclaims “Welcome to the Dallas Buyers Club”. It’s an off-beat moment in a fairly straightforward film (narratively speaking anyway). Woodroof, harassed by his own need and stricken circumstances, develops a strictly symptomatic relief program for AIDS, one that will help many others in a similar situation to his own. At its simplest the ‘club’ is a business, a money-making scheme to fund his own wellbeing. He’s a cowboy, a hustler, after all. But deep down it’s more than that. In his own plight against the horrible illness that Woodroof has mysteriously obtained, this homophobic, probably racist and really quite vile man has found humanity. So when he says, “Welcome to the Dallas Buyers Club,” of course he has dollar signs gleaming in his eyes and subsistence flowing through his limbs, but he also has a heart that beats in favour of survival. Not just his survival… everyone’s survival.
The macho Ron Woodroof dabbles in more than his fair share of alcohol, cocaine and women — behaviour that comes across more intrinsic than sporadic in his neck of the woods. He’s invincible, at least in his own mind. Recently though, coughing spurts have become common and dizzy spells just as a frequent, so when Woodroof collapses and shortly thereafter finds out he has contracted AIDS it’s less surprising than it is sad. Told nonchalantly he has around thirty days to live by Dr. Sevard (Dennis O’Hare), Ron initially dismisses the revelation as ridiculous, only to eventually succumb to reality. Often finding exuberance in the good-natured Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), Ron uses his resourcefulness — he’s an electrician — to devise a plan of survival, one that also incorporates Rayon (Jared Leto), an extravagant and kind transgender woman whose shining demeanour aids Ron’s attitude as much as his health.
Dallas Buyers Club works on a number of levels, but the film’s most outstanding achievement centres on a pair of performances. First, Matthew McConaughey truly is extraordinary as the depleted Woodroof (the actor went as far as to lose 40 pounds for the role). He’s never made out to be a hero, not in the conventional manner anyway, and McConaughey never tries to sell him as such. When we first meet Ron he’s pretty loathsome, yet even this early on there’s a charismatic spark that seems to grow brighter and brighter the longer Ron lives. McConaughey often reigns in the sentimental tone; his persona is such that emotion, grace and vulnerability are not instinctive traits. Yet he still persuades you to unequivocally vie for him. Undoubtedly, his relationship with Rayon aids this audience connection. Jared Leto is utterly unrecognisable in appearance, but seeps total authenticity through the dress and make-up. He strikes a fine balance in the role, punchy and effeminate but never stumbling towards caricature mode. Together, and apart, the duo make you believe in these people, in their struggles and in their staunch resistance to the cards life has dealt.
There’s an interesting ‘corporate versus the little guy’ battle going on too. Essentially, this is your proverbial ‘Hollywood’ addition to a film wrapped up in a far from glamorous topic. The grappling-against-the-system element succeeds though, both in furthering Ron’s personal redemption and also injecting the story with a greater scope, a wider base to juggle on. Set in the mid-1980s, knowledge about combating AIDS is lousy at best (“Can I read a copy of the study?”; “No it’s still being written.”) therefore the most promising bet appears to be an antiviral named AZT, a drug flaunted and prescribed in high test dosages by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), but one not entirely beneficial to patients. Ron discovers the non-truths, triggering his idea of a Dallas Buyers Club aimed at providing alternative medicines for sufferers. This fuels another morality fire, one which debates who is in the wrong: the multinational juggernauts selling false lies for cash, or the independent virus victim selling club memberships for life? FDA agent Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill) is often the obstacle in Ron’s path only there’s a peculiar parallel that both men share. The duo are embezzled in the art of profiteering. However it’s what drives the men respectively that separates them, a moral compass that could not be more contradicting.
The film is based on a true story but envelops an artistic licence that sees it become something of a spiritual successor to Milk, and venturing further back Philadelphia, at least in terms of legal battles and humanistic principles. When Woodroof resolutely and poignantly exclaims, “I say what goes in my body, not you,” it resonates on both of these levels, particularly in regards to individuality and acceptance. There’s very little music going on the background to nudge your emotions in a certain direction. Instead your despairs and joys are all products generated from the poise of performance and presentation of story. A tough story at times, but one that is never told in an exploitative manner. Even still, director Jean-Marc Vallée seldom dismisses the presence of humour in telling the tale. Often these laughs emerge from McConaughey’s sly pretence and ingenuity — his character’s belief that he can get away with absolutely anything (including impersonating a priest) is endemic.
Dallas Buyers Club deals expertly with a painful subject, resultantly ensuring proceedings are far less demanding to watch in comparison to how tough they could easily have been. This is in no small part down to the performances of Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey, the latter’s portrayal never shirking away from his characters shortcomings and non-heroic demeanour. Yet, you engage with the man so much that even as the shaky final scene of appreciation plays out, any personal misgivings are forgotten.