Dallas Buyers Club marks the pinnacle of Matthew McConaughey’s extraordinary return from the wilderness of slick haired, white smiled romantic comedies to the world of engaging, affecting, mesmerising drama. A string of impressive performances starting with 2012’s Mud and including Killer Joe, Magic Mike and The Paperboy have rejuvenated McConaughey and turned one of film’s biggest punchlines in to one of its most prized assets. The actor of my childhood who achieved new levels of cheese in the likes of How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days is completely unrecognisable as Ron Woodruff, a rough, ready and reckless living Texas electrician who discovers he is suffering from AIDS after an innocuous work accident lands him in hospital in 1985.
Diagnosed with just thirty days to live, and after gradually accepting his terminal situation, Woodruff begins to conduct his own research with regards to the medical treatments available, and the film very quickly finds its groove as an expose of the difficulty of attaining effective drugs and the apparent self interest and unwillingness of members of the Food And Drug Administration to strive to approve medicines that sufferers needed. Woodruff acknowledges this problem and decides to create a ‘buyers club’, a system by which he would supply the unapproved drugs to those in need for a monthly membership cost of $400, this way avoiding prosecution for selling them outright in the fashion of a dealer. The customers are not paying for the drugs, they are paying for membership to the club. In these sequences displaying ‘members’ collecting their goods, the filmmakers do an important job of showcasing to the audience the great variety of people who were living with HIV/AIDS at the time, from gay to straight to transgender, male, female, working class, middle class. The scenes serve as a welcome reminder to some, who in these enlightened times still seem to hold the view that such a disease is reserved for promiscuous homosexual men.
Within the broader ‘fight for justice’ narrative we have the character study and evolution of Ron Woodruff, mostly helped by a stunning supporting performance by Jared Leto as business partner and transgender woman Rayon. Ron’s strikingly homophobic attitudes witnessed at the beginning of the film gradually, and convincingly, begin to erode as he spends more time with Rayon and other LGBT club members. The depth and change of character that McConaughey manages to portray in such a short space of time does not feel contrived at any point, and though the film relies heavily on the use of ‘three months later’ type inserts, the plot never seems rushed or sacrificed in order to attain a more suitable running time. The film is perfectly paced at two hours and though the narrative cannot be described as action packed, the content is extremely interesting and performances endlessly engaging.
And it is these engaging performances that elevate Dallas Buyers Club from just a solid social drama to something really quite special. Without meaning to sound repetitive, Matthew McConaughey is an absolute triumph. The physical requirements of the role leave him looking a far cry from the glossy pages of the teen magazines he used to grace so regularly. An uncomfortably emaciated form, his wiry posture and sallow features manage to fill the screen rather than disappear in to it, and perhaps vitally, a hint of that slick charm that he used to overwhelm with in his past performances was subtly present and gives Woodruff’s character the human magnetism that evokes immediate sympathy. This is key for a character whom may not be particularly likeable at the beginning of their arc, and Woodruff’s homophobia and racism mixed with his recreational drug use certainly puts him into such a category. Matching McConaughey in every aspect bar screen time is Jared Leto as Rayon. From the moment the audience first meet the delicate yet determined creature, we are on her side. Male in biology but female in mind and sensibility, Leto possesses the perfect slight of figure and air of effeminacy to carry the weight of the role without a single objection being raised on my part. Rayon not only acts as a foil and catalyst for Woodruff’s emotional awakening, but is a fully fleshed out character whom the audience invest in and care for, which is all that can be asked from a supporting role. If I were to be forced to point any criticism toward the film, the only aspect of the narrative that didn’t sit entirely comfortably with me was the creation of the character Dr. Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner. She is the only character officially on the other side of the ‘legal’ fence that appears to be in support of the buyers club, with the rest of the authoritative figures being portrayed as, essentially, villainous in their attempts to shut down the operation that the audience become so supportive of. Though she does develop a relationship of some integrity with Ron, the purpose of Dr. Saks, to me, seemed to be a move by the writers to give some sympathetic balance to the medical professionals of the eighties.
Overall, Dallas Buyers Club is a film that presents a weighty subject to the audience with what feels like a light and sensitive touch. One feels educated and informed by the details of the narrative without ever being bogged down by the politics of the situation, and this is mainly thanks to the outstanding and endearing central performances from the picture’s two leading actors. I cannot foresee any other result come Oscar night than Jared Leto taking the prize for Best Supporting Actor, whilst the race for Best Actor is much tighter, in my opinion, between Matthew McConaughey and Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years A Slave. Only time will tell which way the Academy have decided to go, but for the record, I am team McConaughey all the way.