Film Review: Dallas Buyers Club (Voltage Pictures; 2013)

‘Dallas Buyers Club’ tells the story of Ron Woodruff, a cocky epicurean of a Texas cowboy who finds out early on in the script that he has 30 days to live, after being diagnosed with HIV. Following this news and a short spell on the dubious AZT drug that has been lucratively forwarded by large pharmaceutical companies, he begins importing and selling non-approved medication and after a short while establishes a successful racket, finding a niche market among the Texan gay community. This all goes on under the nose of the FDA, to whom Woodruff’s audacious work seems more a two-fingers-up gesture than an impassioned local vigilante project.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s picture goes on to chart the story of this man defying the odds, with injections of tragedy felt everywhere in the lives of the people Woodruff becomes involved with or helps out, often inadvertently. The film, if not always quite convincingly, juggles several weighty issues, with its main one being obviously tied up with the initial diagnosis. Matthew McConaughey’s character is forced to confront head-on the untimely topic he has for so long scoffed at, and now looks to escape by piling debauchery on top of debauchery: the topic of death. It becomes clear as the story progresses that Woodruff is, as much as almost anything else, a sad depiction of modern man: emaciated, narcissistic, deluded, ignorant yet haughty, a drug addict.  He is in equal measures, though, a source of comedy – a stubborn and prejudiced Southern white man finding that he needs to navigate and communicate with a world he up until now couldn’t have cared less about  – which breathes a great deal of the film’s warmth and humanity into it. Accordingly, the clown trope is one repeated throughout as a sort of leitmotif, and in several instances where we see our hero in crisis, each bit of advice he receives proves as untrustworthy as the AZT he is initially duped into seeking out.  In one memorable scene, we see him deliriously staggering about at a postmodern highway intersection, and this fleshes out one of the film’s key concerns, with Woodruff something of a relic in a fluid, unstable and rapidly developing world that is fast leaving him behind.

 
Jared Leto gives a brilliant turn as Rayon, a transgender HIV sufferer, who becomes Woodruff’s way in to the homosexual community, his prime market in a patently machismo 1980’s Texas. After his performance here, most people have put further wind into the sails of McConaughey’s turnaround acting career, following impressive appearances in films like ‘Mud’ and ‘Killer Joe’, as well as his unforgettable recent cameo in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. And his Machinist-like, skeletal physique is certainly one of the most vivid, arresting elements of this very visual film, but really Leto is the star of the show from the moment Woodruff and the spectator meet him in the Texan hospital ward. Although often a comic foil with Woodruff to the tragedy of their respective situations, watching Leto is, at times, both harrowing and heartbreaking in this film. Jennifer Garner is sufficiently convincing as Eve Saks, the well-bred, clean-cut middle class doctor who, breaking the stiff rationality of her medical reserve, becomes sympathetic towards Woodruff’s cause and increasingly attached to the duo over the course of the movie. Ultimately, though, it is her two patients who deserve the acting plaudits for their brilliant performances.

 
There are, it has to be pointed up, one or two rather improbable points in the plot (like how smoothly the smuggling process pans out over the course of many years), and arguably the subject of HIV/AIDS isn’t dealt with in the broadest way possible. However, if we allow the narrative a degree of creative license with these more peripheral details and don’t interrogate its politics too heavily, what we have is a really powerful and enjoyable piece of cinema. The film is expected to mop up somewhat at the Oscars after picking up nothing at this year’s bizarre Bafta awards. It might not win Best Picture, but as an all-round hit of cinema, it stands up to any of the other nominees and I’d wager is the film audiences’ most warmed to out of the bunch.

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