About four or five years ago, I couldn’t imagine being excited about a Matthew McConaughey film but then came his McConaissance and on the back of tremendous performances in the likes of Killer Joe, Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street, he’s quickly becoming one of my favourite actors of recent times. I still can’t believe it. His latest provides us with perhaps his finest performance to date and accompanies a terrific film which instantly becomes one of my favourites of the young year.
Based on a true story, McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a Texan rodeo cowboy come electrician who enjoys women, beer, drugs, women and women. Having been obviously sick for a while, he is taken to hospital and when wakes, is given the shocking news that he has HIV. This being mid 1980s Texas, Woodroof is, shall we say, taken aback by the news but more worried about accusations that he’s homosexual or ‘faggot’ as he rather ineloquently puts it. After denial and some research plus a stint in a hospital south of the border, Ron discovers that he can help himself and fellow HIV patients by smuggling unapproved medicine into the USA, a decision that puts him on a collision course with the FDA and the American Justice Department.
I’d expected a lot from Dallas Buyers Club having read a few reviews and seen it nominated for six Oscars and winning two Golden Globes before its UK release. It not only lived up to my expectations but managed to surpass them. This is a heart wrenching and incredibly well acted film which makes one both angry and sad at the same time but remains entertaining throughout. It deals with a disease which is still taboo in the West and offers open and frank discussion about its causes and most notably its treatment. It also whisks us back to the recent past, to a time and place in which the virus was little understood. I remember hearing about HIV and AIDS as a child and rumours about it being spread by touching or kissing but here that is visualised in the reactions of Ron’s ill-educated former friends and co-workers as well as through the early actions of the central character himself.
I enjoyed following Ron’s transformation from homophobic, hillbilly to erudite, businessman-quack. It’s not a huge shift and he still remains the same man but his experiences and friendships change his outlook in a way which I found uplifting and invigorating. As a bleeding heart liberal, I like to think that even the most maliciously fervent fundamentalist has the ability to change his course given education and tutorship from well meaning people. That’s exactly what Ron Woodroof gets from Jared Leto’s Reyon. Reyon is a transgender, homosexual who is burdened with the same life ending virus as Woodroof. Although initially hostile, Ron’s won round by Reyon’s kindness, good nature and sass and the duo form an unlikely friendship and business relationship. It’s heart-warming stuff.
The film’s plot is reasonably straightforward and uncomplicated while there are few twists or surprises. You can see everything coming from a mile in the distance but it’s still ultimately satisfying. I willed Ron on through his troubles and enjoyed spending time with Reyon. When together they were often hilarious but there were moments of extreme anxiety and sadness scattered in amongst the lighter moments. I like the idea behind the plot too. Buried in the story of HIV and smuggling, is a capitalist success. A man spots a gap in the market and fills it, benefiting both himself and others. In a twisted sort of way, Woodruff is still living the American Dream. The film somehow manages to straddle both sides of the political spectrum with a character who is both a capitalist and a socialist in one. It's a triumph of individualism and freedom of choice. What I also liked is that although Woodruff fights big pharma, there’s no tangible evidence that his cocktail actually works. I like to think that he enables people to feel loved, motivated and healed by a like-minded, like-suffering man. He almost acts as a placebo, like a support group and hospital in one. Whether his drugs work or not is of secondary importance. His patients will die either way but he offers hope, friendship and community before the inevitable.
I’ve been wittering on for some time now and have barely mentioned the film’s crowning achievements; it’s two central acting performances. It’s rare to encounter a film with not one but two show stopping performances but this is one of those rare movies. McConaughey is painfully gaunt and greasy, looking as ill as his character. He’s mesmerising at times and surely a threat to Chiwetel Ejiofor for an Oscar win. He plays the role with passion and conviction and it shines through his wonderful turn. Jared Leto is equally fantastic and seems a lock to secure an Oscar. I’ve never been a huge fan of his work, in no way related to my girlfriend’s drooling over him, but here he is simply extraordinary, undergoing a De Niro-esque body transformation that is perhaps one of the most visually stunning I’ve seen. Not only does his body change but he totally becomes Reyon, living and breathing the role. He throws everything into it and comes out with my fullest admiration.
The sticky Dallas heat is captured beautifully by cinematographer Yves Bélanger and director Jean-Marc Valleé. The film’s low budget if anything adds to the grimy, southern setting as well as the 1980s period which is further enhanced by excellent costume and set design. Although I like and admire so much about this film, I do have just one or two qualms which keep it from being flawless. My first problem is that for some reason, the city of Dallas only seems to have one Police Officer. I understand the budget was small but in every scene featuring the Police, and there are a lot, the same Officer is present. Another problem is that of the subject matter. Although the movie bravely discussed HIV and AIDS, it barely mentions the causes and prevention of the virus. It could be argued that the film focuses more on the treatment side but some broader discussion would have been appreciated by me at least. As you can see, these are small problems which are barely worth mentioning. On the whole, Dallas Buyers Club is a superb movie which is anchored by an endearing story and two exquisite acting performances.
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