It’s 2014 and the world has become a strange place. Matthew McConaughey is fast becoming an incredibly talented actor. Yes, the same man who fronted limp rom-coms How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launchis steadily making waves in the industry. After critically acclaimed performances in Mud, Killer Joe and The Paperboy, McConaughey now finds himself nominated for his first Best Actor award. I still find it hard to connect these two people but, as we know, I eventually adapted to proper actor Marky Mark without much emotional upheaval. Maybe I could even get used to the serious but probably still shirtless Matthew McConaughey.
Dallas Buyers Clubis the mostly true story of AIDS sufferer Ron Woodruff (McConaughey); Ron is your typical, gruff cowboy who loves alcohol, money and women. Unfortunately all three of these end up getting him into differing degrees of trouble. After an accident at work, Ron is diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to get his affairs in order. Unable to accept that he has contracted the disease, Ron defies his doctor’s and reacts with a dose of macho pig-headedness and homophobia. In a clever reversal of the typical terminal illness narrative, it is these earlier scenes depicting Ron’s determination to ignore the truth that are the most upsetting and bleakest points of the film. When faced with the life altering news, the proud electrician argues with his doctors, demands a second opinion and reminds anybody who will listen that he “ain’t no faggot”.
After his health begins to decline and his equally prejudiced friends turn their back on him, Ron decides to learn as much as he can about the disease. Deciding that AZT, the only approved drug in America at the time, is his only hope of survival Ron goes to any length possible to get his hands on it. Including a brief stop off in Mexico where he learns a few hard truths about this supposed miracle drug. Leading the way for this homophobic cowboy becomes an unlikely hero in the battle against the Food and Drug Administration as argues against the toxic drug. Ron starts to smuggle non-FDA approved drugs into the US and handing them out to his fellow sufferers. Picking up on the opportunity to make some money at the same time, he discovers a loophole that allows him to sell club membership plus free life-prolonging drugs. With the help of his unlikely business partner, a transgender participant in the AZT study, Ron finds himself at the head of a very lucrative business.
Cynics will see Dallas Buyers Club as being tailor-made for awards season because, on the surface, it seems to follow a clichéd structure for Oscar winners. We have a classic tale of bigoted man going through a journey of survival and metamorphosis. However, this is certainly doing the film a disservice. Screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack strike a wonderful balance in the overall tone of the film. It has moments of humour but not to the extent that the plight of those diagnosed with HIV are trivialised. On the other hand, it is a serious portrayal of the medical situation at the start of the AIDS epidemic without being too sombre or maudlin.
This is a genuine retelling of Woodroof’s life post-diagnosis but, at the same time, this isn’t necessarily trying to break new ground concerning the history of the disease. If you want that then check out the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague. For all of its potential faults, Dallas Buyers Club is a film that is made by its leading characters and the performances that front it. This is Ron’s story and McConaughey gives us a compelling performance as this anti-hero. He is a difficult character because, even when he is verging on the heroic, Woodroof remains a flawed and selfish human being. Ron’s whole way of life is torn apart after he receives the destructive news but McConaughey always maintains that underlying swagger and confidence.
Jared Leto has a tougher time playing composite character Rayon, who becomes the film’s face of 1980s American homosexuality. Leto is another revelation and gives a great deal of depth to the character. For all of her supposed independence and intelligence, Rayon is intensely vulnerable and self-destructive. Director Vallée has ensured that these deep-seated contradictions run into Rayon’s physical appearance: Leto, like McConaughey, has shrunk down for the role and creates a ravaged victim of illness and drug abuse to counter her glamorous moments of wigs, make-up and cheekbones.
Dallas Buyers Club is based on a true story and there have been numerous debates over how true this depiction of the real Ron Woodroof actually is. Regardless of the facts, the film is wonderfully made and the cast do amazing jobs. Even Jennifer Garner brings elegance to her fairly unnecessary role of Dr Eve Saks, another composite character. It is beautiful film that, despite dealing with illness and impending death, is uplifting and inspirational. So, if the story has become slightly unrealistic and exaggerated, I say it’s all worth it in the end.