Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) lives like a cowboy in a bad movie – hustling at a rodeo, heavy drinking, drugs and lots of unprotected sex. After a fainting spill, he is unexpectedly diagnosed as HIV positive and he is given thirty days to live. Initially, he refuses to believe that he is HIV positive, thinking only gay people catch ‘the bug.’ Increasingly ostracised from his friends, he falls in with another HIV positive patient, Rayon (Leto), a transsexual, and together they concoct a scheme that will help them survive their illness and make a little money into the bargain – selling illegal drugs to AIDS patients in defiance of the established codes of practice of the American health care system.
Matthew McConaughey, much feted nowadays for not doing poor films, is very good in the lead, plays a character with a very predictable arc with heart and real honesty. Woodroof is initially a deeply unlikeable person – a homophobic, racist, misogynistic alcoholic – who slowly transforms over the course of the film into the Oskar Schindler of the AIDS epidemic – one scene in particular recalls the Spielberg film, wherein Woodroof desperately looks for possessions to sell to get drugs for his patients. Along the way, he must confront his fears and his prejudices in order to survive and he must move from a safe existence amongst friends to a place amongst society’s outsiders. This predictable emotional journey, particularly as represented in his budding friendship with the very outré Rayon, is presented realistically and believably, and with a helpful dose of humour, even if Rayon himself has a narrative trajectory all too obvious and mechanical. It is the quality of the performances, which breathes new life into the formula to which Dallas Buyer’s Club is very much attached.
The direction of Jean-Marc Vallée also helps. Though a lot more mannered than the irritating tics of his most recent film, Café de Flore, Vallée succeeds in giving certain scenes a palpable feeling of ill health. While McConaughey performs well physically, Vallée’s camera moves queasily and falls in and out of focus, both presenting a picture of a sick man that is both effective and affective. McConaughey is convincing as a sick man and Vallée’s camera gives us a sense of what it would be like to be sick. Aside from that, Vallée is a little too interested in being shocking. Though it is of course beneficial that Woodroof’s early life (or the film’s version of his early life anyway) is not safely sugar-coated, Vallée focuses a little too much on his hedonistic existence. This makes the film vaguely unlikeable in its early moments without necessarily contributing to the realism, and it recalls Flight, which rather childishly only came alive during scenes of sex and drug-taking. Ultimately, McConaughey’s performance makes one forget these few grubby, leery scenes.
The film benefits also from a political subtext, which helps heighten the drama. The film shows drug reps trying to boost the profile of the drug AZT, which has proved inconclusive during animal trials. The drug is given to AIDS patients despite making some of them worse, primarily because the system is more profit orientated than it is humanitarian. When Woodroof brings a new brand of drugs into the market, one that deals effectively with the effects of AIDS, he is frequently prosecuted and shut down. The film makes some valid points about the state of the American health care system and it is this political significance that ultimately allows Dallas Buyer’s Club to transcend its Hollywood drama framework. It is much easier to forget the clichés when the film has something to say about real world issues. Admittedly, however, since it is after all a Hollywood drama, the politics is slight. The film ultimately names and shames a single bad guy (the FDA – Federal Drug Administration), leaving the institutions and laws of the US health care system alone, rather conservatively avoiding the big issues. As well as this, the film does not really know how to address the potentially exploitative and unpleasant nature of Woodroof’s ‘buyer’s club’ where an AIDS sufferer may be turned away if they do not have any money.
Dallas Buyer’s Club does not always feel fresh or new, but it is a film that works much better than a bald synopsis would suggest it should. This is mainly thanks to some great direction and camerawork, real world relevance and to Matthew McConaughey’s great performance, which reveals a rich and unpredictable humanity from within a role too often a Hollywood standard. If Dallas Buyer’s Club is ultimately all surface, in keeping with typical Hollywood dramas, 12 Years A Slave among them, it is nonetheless an effective and convincing film with a good sense of humour and a fantastic central performance.