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Dallas Buyers Club

D: Jean-Marc Vallée / 117m

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O’Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin

It’s 1985. Rock Hudson has recently died from a new, mostly unheard of disease called AIDS. Quickly attributed as a “homosexual” disease, and with all the accumulated prejudice that goes with it, what would you do if you were told you were HIV+, that it was too far advanced, and you had only thirty days to live? Live on in denial? Put together a bucket list and work your way through it? Admit yourself into hospital and let the doctors do their best? Or would you do something completely unexpected?  Say, bribe a hospital employee to get you an experimental drug called AZT?  And if you did, what would you do if that drug was cut off from you?  Would you then travel to Mexico to get some more?  And all in the last two days of your predicted remaining lifespan?

Well, if you were Ron Woodroof you’d do all that, and more.  As played by Matthew McConaughey, Ron finds salvation (of sorts) in Mexico thanks to Dr Vass (Dunne).  Vass treats Ron with a combination of ddC and the protein peptide T, and lets him know that AZT isn’t effective if a patient has other health issues e.g. drug addiction.  With AZT being pushed by the US medical establishment, Ron decides to bring Vass’s drugs into the US – where they are unapproved but not illegal – and distribute them to fellow AIDS sufferers.  Back in Texas, he sets up the Dallas Buyers Club; for a monthly membership fee of $400, anyone who is HIV+ can get the same drugs that are keeping Ron alive, and for free.  However, it’s not long before the FDA begins to look into what Ron is up to, and tries to stop him from supplying the drugs, even though they are proven to be non-toxic and beneficial to both Ron and the people he provides them for.

Also during this time, Ron meets a transgender AIDS sufferer called Rayon (Leto).  Ron is initially guarded around Rayon but in time comes to view her as a friend as well as a partner in the club (Rayon’s contacts help boost the club’s membership).  With support from his former physician, Dr Saks (Garner), but antipathy from her boss, Dr Sevard (O’Hare), as well as FDA agent Barkley (O’Neill), Ron continues to find loophole after loophole to allow him to supply the drugs his members need.  It’s only when the FDA gets the law changed so that unapproved drugs are also illegal, that Ron faces an uphill struggle to keep the Dallas Buyers Club going.

Dallas Buyers Club - scene

Dallas Buyers Club does what a lot of really good movies do: it starts off slow, is a little bit predictable, and makes you wonder if all the hype isn’t unfounded; it’s good but it’s not that good.  The acting is good, the direction is more than proficient, the script is several notches above the usual level, and then… somehow, the movie just takes off like a rocket.  In cinematic terms this is what happens once Ron wakes up in Mexico and finds himself still alive after thirty days.  The movie not only moves up a gear, it maintains that level of excellence throughout the rest of its running time.  Make no mistake, Dallas Buyers Club is one of those movies that grabs your attention and then doesn’t let go.

High praise, indeed, and all thanks to screenwriter Craig Borten, who interviewed Woodroof for the purpose of writing a screenplay, and who had access to Woodroof’s personal journals.  As a result, the script is compelling, dramatic, humorous when necessary, sad, affecting, stirring, compassionate, aggressive, and at times, disturbing.  Co-written with Melisa Wallack, Borten’s script keeps the focus tightly on Ron and his constant struggle to stay alive, and the transformation he undergoes from being an opportunist selling drugs to fellow sufferers, to the modest philanthropist he becomes when providing the drugs becomes more important than making a profit.  It’s a gradual process, and because there’s no overnight road-to-Damascus epiphany involved, it makes it all the more credible.

Of course, none of the above would have been possible if not for the amazing performance given by McConaughey.  McConaughey just keeps getting better and better at the moment, and Dallas Buyers Club proves – if you weren’t already convinced by his work in Killer Joe (2011), Mud and Magic Mike (both 2012) – that his range and skills as an actor are broader and more focused than most people would have expected.  He dominates the screen, displaying a maturity and conviction that most actors wouldn’t even get within a thousand yards of.  His performance is awe-inspiring.  He doesn’t miss an emotional beat, never once takes a misstep in terms of how his character would behave or react, and is always believable.  It’s an acting tour-de-force, one of those times you forget there’s an actor playing a role.

He’s matched for commitment and credibility by Leto, who turns in a career best performance.  At first, he’s unrecognisable, such is the transformation he undergoes in the movie, but the commitment and the emotional vulnerability he brings to the role is staggering.  For a movie to have one such performance in it is amazing enough; when there’s two, it’s astounding.

There is a downside, however.  With McConaughey and Leto on such incredible form, it leaves their fellow cast members left way behind.  It’s not their fault, as the script keeps Ron at its centre, and he is the focus of almost every scene.  Against the pyrotechnics McConaughey brings to the role, actors such as Garner and O’Hare, and the underused Zahn, can’t help but seem a little less interesting or appear less worthy of our time.  Garner’s character, in particular, seems only there to allow us to get to know Ron a little bit better, as if we don’t know him well enough already, or as if we need to see his casual, more relaxed, more charming side, instead of the determined, tenacious side we see throughout the rest of the movie.

But while the performances and the script are first-class, what about the direction?  Well, Vallée does an impressive job here, his confidence in the material and his cast showing through in every scene.  He has a wonderful sense of space as well; watch the  scenes set in the motel rooms where the club is set up and see if the framing doesn’t allow for more to be going on than there should be.  It’s a delicate touch, and keeps the movie continually interesting from a visual perspective.  He also knows when to switch from one character to another in a scene – something some directors never get right – and when to place a reaction shot at just the right moment.  Vallée’s intuitive style works well here, and it’s hard to imagine another director getting it as right as he does.

Rating: 9/10 – If I’d seen this at the cinema in 2013, it would have been in my Top 10 for the year, and probably in my Top 5; a thought-provoking, emotionally draining drama that amuses, inspires, and educates in equal measure, and which – thankfully – doesn’t feel the need to descend into crowd-pleasing.