Dallas Buyers Club follows the real life story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), an unreconstructed good ole boy who’s fast living leads him to contract HIV in 1985 from unprotected straight sex with a needle user, just as the disease is beginning to emerge from the gay underground to terrorise mainstream America. After an initial period of denial sees him storming out of his social circles in a hail of sissy jokes and being failed by US healthcare, he crams up on his condition and ends up in Mexico looking for non-FDA approved anti-viral medicine. There the lightning bolt hits him to set up shop back home in Texas importing un-regulated drugs to sell directly to the gay community. In order to circumvent the laws against directly selling non-approved drugs for profit, he establishes the titular Dallas Buyers Club, whose $400-a-month membership fees have absolutely nothing to do with every member receiving a complimentary course of anti-AIDS medication.
McConaughey continues his stellar run on drawling Southerners with Woodroof, but appropriately leaves behind the derangement of his Killer Joe and True Detective performances. His transformation from racist, homophobic, substance abusing lowlife to clean living entrepreneur (righteously scrutinising supermarket food ingredients, besuited and negotiating into a brick phone) and finally advocate for AIDS sufferers before the Supreme Court, would come off trite were it not for the cowboy swagger and Texan grit McConaughey injects into the role without making Woodroof cartoonish to the point his failings can be discounted. His caustic personal approach to homosexuals lingers long after they’ve started making him rich, with newly gained tolerance mostly the by product of his business rather than the motivation for it. Indeed, the first time he’s shown openly embracing his pivotal friendship with transgender business cohort Rayon (Jared Leto) is after she’s cashed him out her life insurance policy.
Leto deserves no less credit for his performance, his character having made peace with her condition as the price of her lifestyle compared to Woodroof’s dogged resistance to it. Leto provides a flamboyant, softly sweet foil to McConaughey’s gruff hustler, and it’s their relationship that provides the heart and soul of the film and successfully sells the more tender dramatic moments. These never feel less than earned, in a strong script from relative newcomers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, rich in laconic black humour and affection forced through gritted teeth, giving McConaughey ample opportunities to have fun with Woodruff’s old phobias doing battle with the promise of a pay cheque.
Director Jean Marc Vallee’s shaky cam style suits the story’s purpose, stopping to holding up Woodroof’s listless existence early on, then gaining momentum as McConaughey bounces from hospital bed to international business deal, his world expanding the harder he battles his fate. The production does a great job of grounding this metamorphosis in the different desperate worlds he inhabits, from the macho redneck iconography of his pre-diagnosis lifestyle (Confederate flags, Harley Davidson calendars) giving way to pictures of George Michael and Marc Bolan that Rayon infiltrates into the club offices. In all the film succeeds as a refreshingly gonzo take on the underdog American dreamer, and a compelling depiction of the mood surrounding the rise of AIDS in the popular imagination. There’s much in the film to be appreciated beyond McConaughey, but his ability to make such a convincingly mercenary character so sympathetic suggest the Oscar is where it belongs: as another display in the McConaughissance gallery.
DVD/BD Release Date:
2nd June 2014 (UK)
Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn
Buy: Dallas Buyers Club [Blu-ray]