Film review: Dallas Buyers Club

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AFTER spending more than a decade drifting shirtless through a fug of blockbuster banality, Matthew McConaughey has so consistently defied expectations over the last couple of years that it seems only appropriate that the role for which he seems to be collectively accruing some awards recognition should itself transcend the trappings of the dreaded “Oscar-calibre performance” label so frequently bestowed upon actors at this time of year.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (15)

Dallas Buyers Club. Pictured: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Dallas Buyers Club. Pictured: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner

STAR RATING: * * * *

As Ron Woodroof, a homophobic Texan good ol’ boy who became an AIDS activist and medical rights champion after being diagnosed with the disease in 1986, McConaughey instinctively moves away from grandstanding worthiness and redemption-seeking sentimentality to play Woodroof as a prickly, sleazy, lustful guy whose figurehead status in the early fight against Aids was fuelled initially by his own pragmatic desire to defy death rather than any forthright desire to foster understanding or commune with his fellow sufferers.

In detailing the story of how Woodroof found a way to exploit loopholes in the law to import Aids-battling medication not yet approved for sale by America’s slow-moving Food and Drug Administration (FDA), both the film and McConaughey focus on the man’s actions.

As a rodeo rider, he literally grabbed the bull by the horns and hung on for dear life and, right out of the gate, director Jean-Marc Vallée uses that imagery as a potent symbol of Woodroof’s approach to life: first in his all-consuming passions (he has a rampant appetite for sex, drugs and alcohol), and then in his unquestioning willingness to flout the law in order to set up the titular Dallas Buyers Club – a membership-only organisation that enables him to supply the medication he desperately needs for himself to fellow sufferers without incurring drug-trafficking charges.

That sets the film up as a classic underdog-against-the-system tale – one given extra dramatic heft by the fact that Woodroof and his largely homosexual clientele (among them a troubled transgender woman called Rayon, sensitively played by Jared Leto) are living under a death sentence that bureaucratic red tape is hastening. But the conventionality of the film is subverted by McConaughey’s lively and unpredictable performance.

Mercifully, his much-discussed weight loss is an integral part of that performance rather than one of those misplaced bids for authenticity that can become an end in themselves. As Woodroof, he’s sickly thin from the outset, so his gaunt visage, skeletal frame and inability to wear clothes that come anywhere close to fitting him are not used to track the progress of a terrible disease or define Woodroof as a victim of it. Nor are they used to elicit easy sympathy for a bigot given to the homophobia of the times.

Instead, McConaughey uses his own transformation to signal Woodroof’s defiance – of his obviously fading health, of his bleak prognosis (he’s told early on that he only has 30 days to live), of his stigmatised and increasingly marginalised status within society, and finally of the regulatory bodies that seem determined to keep medical help out of reach of those most in need of it.

In shedding the pounds (around 40 of them according to interviews), he hasn’t shed who Woodroof was either. In the film’s early scenes, for instance, he struts around in a daze of denial, his spindly frame making a mockery of Woodroof’s swaggering attitude as he refuses to believe a red-blooded male such as himself can have HIV (“I’m all rodeo!” he protests when his doctors – played by Jennifer Garner and Dennis O’Hare – enquire if he’s ever been in a homosexual relationship).

After recalling an unprotected sexual encounter with an intravenous drug user, though, his acceptance of his condition doesn’t exactly soften his position: upon first attending a support meeting for HIV sufferers, the boney angularity of his frame becomes instead his first line of defence against a sympathetic gay man who makes the mistake of trying to welcome him with a comforting embrace. When Woodruff starts to take the system on in court, however, McConaughey again uses his physique to subtle and extraordinary effect: his death’s door demeanour – accentuated by an ill-fitting suit-and-tie combo – becoming a perverse reflection 
of his respectably-dressed opponents, all of whom are representing a savage and brutal legal system that favours corporations over people.

What makes McConaughey’s performance so great is that it reveals Woodroof as a human being without needing to explain or justify him as a person, something that helps the film tap into the larger story of how the US Government refused to confront the Aids crisis head-on.

Of course, the fact that Dallas Buyers Club is told so singularly from a heterosexual perspective does also ensure that it’s far from a comprehensive exploration of the early history of the disease (David France’s brilliant documentary How to Survive a Plague is a much better starting point in this respect). 
But it’s an intelligent and sensitively handled film nonetheless, one that, thanks to McConaughey, doesn’t pull its punches.

• Review by Alistair Harkness