Title: Dallas Buyers Club
Director: Jean Marc Vallee
Major players: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
Out of five? Four
Three months is a long time for a movie blog. Back in November, I speculated about the “fifth man”, the actor who would nab the fifth nomination in the Best Actor category at this year’s Academy Awards. At the time, my money was on Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, but only by the finest of whiskers. Fast forward to now. Not only did he get the nomination, but he’s also won Best Actor at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and a fistful of others. And now he’s looking like the favourite for the Oscar. Of course, there’s still a month and a half to go …….
Just a couple of weeks after I wrote that piece, Dallas Buyers Club opened in the US. The reviews were good, although the film didn’t attract the same kind of adulation lavished on the likes of 12 Years A Slave. In the run-up to its opening in the UK yesterday, all the attention has been on the performances of McConaughey and Jared Leto – and the small matter of their dramatic weight loss – rather than on the film as a whole.
The film is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, an electrician and all-round hustler who, in 1985, is diagnosed as being HIV positive. Told he has just 30 days left, he sets about tracking down medication available in Mexico that could save his life and realises there is money to be made from selling it to fellow HIV sufferers. He sets up a buyers club as a way round the law, and finds himself joining forces with people he would have actively avoided in a campaign to make effective medication more widely available.
This is very much a film of two halves. The first shows us Woodroof in all his dubious glory – racist, homophobic, promiscuous, cocaine snorting and frequently drunk – whose free-wheeling life is turned on its head by the HIV diagnosis. And, once he’s accepted this, he sets about finding sources of effective drugs over the border, selling them and then setting up the buyers’ club. It’s the more effective of the two, propelled by the urgency of Ron’s mission to save his own life. At the start of the second half, when he becomes more of an international businessman jetting across the world in search of medications, it’s as if the film needs to take a breather after all the earlier intensity. It only once regains that momentum, with the death of Rayon (Leto), giving us a second half that has a slightly softer, more traditional feel.
Both McConaughey and Leto are what give the film its magnetism. Their skinny frames demonstrate their commitment to the film, to getting to the heart of their characters and to being as truthful as possible about the situation they face. There’s little to like in McConaughey’s Woodroof at the outset and, even though he becomes something of a campaigner, the thought that he’s making money out of AIDS sufferers is always in the back of your mind. He’s a hero of sorts, but not necessarily heroic. Leto’s Rayon, the would-be transsexual, is smart, sassy but full of sadness and frailties, desperately longing for the love he lost when his father discovered his lifestyle. Rayon’s the most unlikely of business partners for Woodroof, but the scenes between the two are some of the best in the film, prickly but with a growing, albeit grudging, respect.
Filmed in a semi-documentary style, there is a gritty, naturalistic style to the camerawork. Sometimes we see the world in an objective way, others through the eyes of one or other character: Ron viewing the rodeo through the gaps in the wooden fence right at the start of the film is especially good. The film was shot is just 25 days, adding to the urgent tone that goes with Ron’s quest for medication.
With all the talk at the moment being about awards, it’s worth remembering that neither McConaughey nor Leto will pull off a clean sweep this year. BAFTA hasn’t seen fit to nominate either of them – indeed, the film doesn’t get a single nod – despite it being released in time to qualify. Which means they can concentrate their efforts on their Oscar campaigns. For two actors playing outsiders, they look to be the hottest of favourites to win on 2nd March.
Dallas Buyers Club is currently on general release.