Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto deservedly earned a great deal of praise and won many acting accolades for their performances in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, and it’s easy to overlook the fact that the film itself also received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture last year as well, though without primary turns of such quality it probably wouldn’t have been quite as celebrated. Most of the coverage before the film’s release concentrated on the extraordinary physical transformations undertaken by McConaughey and Leto in order to portray AIDS patients Ron Woodroof (47 pounds lost) and fictional transgender colleague Rayon (around 40 pounds lost) respectively, and their performances certainly are remarkable, elevating what probably would have been a ‘good’ film without them to a ‘very good’ one.
Not that I’m attempting to damn Vallée’s film with faint praise so early on in the review, or anything; there is more here than a couple of excellent performances. Woodroof’s story is an engrossing and moving one, and Vallée and the writers make it easy to empathise with the man and the situation he found himself in, despite an early predilection for moralistic finger-wagging about his lifestyle. Yet the director lets his film veer into melodrama on (arguably) too many occasions, when perhaps the unexaggerated, true story of Woodroof’s struggle with the disease and the big pharma / government love-in that prevented legal access to certain medicine in the 1980s would be interesting viewing in its own right, without any added bells and whistles. Still, the heaped spoonfuls of drama mean we get to enjoy McConaughey’s transformation from sex-addicted, homophobic good ol’ boy to a kind of non-violent, authority-defying freedom fighter. And that does admittedly make for good viewing, so it’s hard to be too critical of Vallée’s direction of his actors.
In real life Texan Woodroof was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, and died seven years later from pneumonia brought on by AIDS. In 1988 he became known as the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ after he began sourcing and selling drugs to other HIV patients in the city that were not readily available from doctors, largely because they were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Woodroof managed to circumnavigate FDA rules by making patients pay to be ‘members’ in his club, before basically giving the drugs away to them for free. He even went as far as suing the FDA over their banning of a drug that he and others used regularly as part of their treatment.
Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten’s screenplay, which takes certain liberties with the facts in order to create a more typical cinematic experience (Vallée isn’t solely culpable for cranking up the drama), concentrates exclusively on these years. As a result the film ignores all of Woodroof’s life up to the point he is diagnosed with HIV and given thirty days to live – he actually managed more than 2,500 – meaning that fictional versions of Woodroof’s three ex-wives do not appear in Dallas Buyers Club and his real-life daughter Yvette isn’t mentioned either. Borten knew Woodroof in the early 1990s and interviewed him, but instead chose to create a different kind of dysfunctional family around the central character for this story, with distribution partner Rayon joined by sympathetic, photogenic local doctor and platonic love interest Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner).
Woodroof’s sexuality has been publicly-debated in the wake of the appearance of this biopic. Some of his friends have told reporters that he was homosexual, some have said that he was bisexual, but in the film the character reflects the person Borten spoke with, and is heterosexual; the writer has stated that Woodroof was ‘as racist and homophobic as they come’, and in Dallas Buyers Club he is at first seen having casual sex at the rodeo with a woman before angrily telling doctors that he isn’t ‘a fag’ when the initial diagnosis is given. (Vallée is fond of the rodeo ‘bare-backing’ analogy, and uses scenes of cowboys thrashing around on a bull without a saddle as a metaphor for unprotected sex on a few occasions near the start and end of the film; it’s worth noting, though, that the term ‘bare-backing’ in relation to sex actually came from the gay community originally.) Borten has suggested that Woodroof’s attitude to homosexuality changed as he had more interaction with the gay, HIV-positive residents of Dallas, and thus in the film McConaughey’s character undergoes a ‘road to Damascus’ turning point when he meets Rayon and begins to sell the unapproved drugs he imports from Mexico to the city’s patients after first testing their worth himself.
Despite the abundance of melodramatic scenes (usually slotted in neatly and predictably either side of a montage), the film actually blends its seams of fiction and reality together fairly well. Both of the principal characters in the film may be exaggerations, but the performances by McConaughey and Leto are completely believable, and when the film is in its choppiest waters they are very impressive. The relationship between the two characters becomes central to the film, with an unspoken bond forming behind a facade of mutual minor irritation; it’s hard not to be moved when the two finally share a hug, which is loaded with subtext here regarding acceptance, friendship and love.
McConaughey plays heavily on Woodroof’s outlandish redneck leanings, yet it is in his quieter, more resilient moments that the actor does his best work. While it certainly makes you sit up and take notice when Woodroof swans into Dr. Saks’s office with a giant sombrero, for example, there is so much more to this character than his showy, public outbursts; we see him ferociously devouring information regarding new drugs that hit the market in the late 1980s and travelling as far as Holland, Israel and Japan in order to find out more. McConaughey excels during these scenes.
One can only begin to imagine how all of this effort and information helped other sufferers who were lucky enough to come into contact with the real Ron Woodroof around that time. That said, for much of the film Ron is as capitalist as they come: growing his own cottage industry and expanding with new premises and staff. Even though generating a profit isn’t his only intention, as a point of fact his generosity towards his customers – he ends up giving memberships away for next to nothing – only comes when his paths to making money are blocked by the FDA locally and, ultimately, the courts. He is visibly taken aback when two customers allow him to use a property they own and explain that they require no remuneration in terms of rent. Ron’s ‘transformation’ or ‘redemption’ in the eyes of the viewer is therefore only complete when his generosity towards fellow HIV patients increases near the end of the film.
Ultimately this is a worthy and well-acted biopic, and despite one or two reservations the lead character’s journey in particular is a fascinating one to follow. McConaughey’s performance in the central role is outstanding, and the fact that another impressive, award-winning performance from Leto arrives in the space of the same film means that Dallas Buyers Club will certainly stand the test of time. Unfortunately Garner – while certainly adequate in her role – struggles to make a similar kind of impact to the two leads, and her character ends up on the periphery of the story, joined by Steve Zahn’s Tucker and Denis O’Hare’s Dr. Sevard. Still, it is a moving film, and while it shows us how far we have come in relation to understanding HIV and AIDS it should also remind people that certain FDA processes and decisions still need to be monitored and questioned today.
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner
Running Time: 116 minutes