Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Griffin Dunne.
Matthew McConaughey continues the career renaissance that began with the courtroom drama The Lincoln Lawyer and continued with Killer Joe, The Paperboy and Mud, and a brief but telling appearance in Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. And now the heart throb actor, once renowned for his bland lightweight romantic comedies, delivers one of the more impressive performances of his career in this dramatised true story of Ron Woodroof, a hard drinking and hard partying redneck electrician and hard riding rodeo type who was diagnosed with AIDS.
The film is set in 1985, when Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS made world headlines. Woodroof was shocked when he was initially diagnosed as being HIV positive after sleeping with a prostitute. The homophobic former rodeo rider is initially angry when told that he has just 30 days to live, and rails against that “queer Rock Hudson disease”. The only drug available for treatment in the US is the retroviral drug AZT, which is being tested on HIV patients and so far was proving fatal and of little value. But then he learns that there are drugs available in Mexico that can extend his life expectancy.
Woodroof journeys to Mexico to meet a doctor (Griffin Dunne), who has been having success with his treatment of AIDS patients. But these drugs are unapproved for use by the FDA, so Woodroof smuggles a trunk load of them back across the border. He starts selling these unlicensed drugs, vitamins and pills from a sleazy motel room. To circumvent the law, he formed a members club, with HIV affected patients paying $400 a month for memberships and receiving the alternative drugs for free. Thus was born the eponymous Dallas Buyers Club. He was aided by Rayon (Jared Leto), a Marc Bolan-obsessed, pre-operation transvestite prostitute and drug addict, who was his entry into the gay community. Eventually a strong bond of friendship developed between this odd couple, and Woodroof’s homophobic attitude slowly fell away and he became a reluctant champion of the AIDS victims seeking care, compassion and treatment.
The script has been written by Melisa Wallack (Mirror Mirror) and first time writer Craig Borten, who conducted some intimate interviews with the real Woodroof shortly before his death in 1992. At times Dallas Buyers Club comes across as a tad manipulative, especially in its treatment of Woodroof’s redemption and transformation. This powerful drama takes some liberties with his real story for dramatic effect. And it has a subtext that is critical of the FDA, which seems more beholden to the big pharmaceutical companies and medical bureaucracy than the health and well being of the people.
Dallas Buyers Club has been in the works for nearly two decades, but it was finally the dedication of star McConaughey that enabled the film to be made. French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (the off beat coming of age tale CRAZY, The Young Victoria, etc) handles the material with intelligence and compassion, and doesn’t shy away from the controversial nature of the material. He has a lean and efficient style, that is perfectly suited to the material, and is far removed from the flashy, flamboyant style with which he announced himself as a filmmaker to watch with CRAZY.
He also draws great performances from his main cast. McConaughey shed 38 pounds to portray the ailing Woodroof, and he looks frightfully gaunt and wasted. He is not always an easy character to like, but McConaughey delivers an emotionally satisfying performance that also captures his vulnerability and insecurity. It is a stunning performance and easily the best of his career, a performance that has already won him a Golden Globe, a lot of respect from his peers, and it is likely to see him win a coveted Oscar.
Cast against type Leto, in his first film role in four years, completely inhabits the fictitious Rayon, but he also brings a vulnerability and tenderness to his performance. Jennifer Garner (who appeared opposite McConaughey in the dire romcom The Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past) is also good as Eve Saks, a sympathetic doctor, but this is a fairly thankless and one dimensional role.
The film is steeped in period detail that reeks of authenticity, down to a soundtrack of 80s songs that is evocative and heavy on the T-Rex songs. Vallee gives us a rather rough, grim view of this corner of Texas, and his cinematographer Yves Belanger (Laurence Anyways, etc) bathes the film in warm, golden hues that emphasise the heat and dust of the setting.
Woodroof’s inspiring story makes a fine companion piece to How To Survive A Plague, the fascinating documentary about the early years of the AIDS pandemic in the US. This is a downbeat film, but it is also filled with a sense of humanity and compassion for the AIDS patients who were treated as outcasts. But the film is mostly memorable for its impressive central performances, especially its dramatic turn from the formerly lightweight, hunky McConaughey.
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