Dallas Buyers Club **** (out of five)
Jean-Marc Vallée, of Montréal and the festival hit C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), has directed a no-nonsense, unsentimental, tightly effective and supremely revealing work in Dallas Buyers Club, which is winning awards for its leads Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto and will almost certainly see both men win Oscars, for Best and Best Supporting Actors respectively. And so they should.
McConaughey plays real-life Ron Woodroof, a homophobic Texan electrician, rodeo enthusiast and very small time drug dealer, who contracts HIV through hetrosexual intercourse with an intravenous drug user. Given thirty days to live, Woodroof used his wits, ingenuity, balls and sheer passionate desire to live to make sure he did – at least for longer than thirty days – and, in doing so, ended up, inadvertently at first and then deliberately, helping hundreds of other HIV-positive men not only prolong their lives but live with greater comfort and dignity. How he did so is a fascinating watch, exposing me, at least, to a fascinating series of legal loopholes, alleyways and traps that existed around the approval of drugs in the US in early response to the AIDS crisis.
I wrote in my recent Oscar nominations article about McConaughey: “Every thing he does in the film is a major choice (from the very first one – letting himself believe he actually has the “faggot disease”); he undergoes an absolutely, positively staggering transformation, from real, grade-A homophobe dick to compassionate caregiver and fighter for the rights of the neglected and marginalised, and therefore has a huge, and extremely clear, character arc.” It is an awesome performance and if you only see the movie for this, it’s worth it.
Leto is excellent too, in – ironically – the quieter, more understated role of the cross-dressing Rayon, who becomes Ron’s incredibly unlikely partner in survival. Rayon is not one of your big, brassy, sassy drag queens, but rather a sensitive, intelligent, relatively restrained and extremely touching fellow, confident on the surface but dealing with life’s challenges (and being transgender in Texas is a big one, let alone having the virus) by dangerously internalising them. Leto will get the Oscar and deserves it too.
There are so many ways this story could have been told, but Vallée’s method, resolutely anti-Hollywood (he uses no music in the entire film, let alone the strings that a studio would have essentially insisted upon), works for me. Woodroof is a tough customer and putting him into a sentimentalised story would have seemed every which way of wrong. Dallas Buyers Club is told with a cold edge, creeping ever-forward along Woodroof’s dark and deadly journey with cold, black title cards that inform us how long he’s been alive since his prognosis. At first these milestones towards an inevitable cemetery are devastating, but as they cruise by thirty days – and then way by that death sentence – they become hugely moving, albeit silent and abrupt – testaments to human will. Avoiding all false sentiment, the film is still hugely moving, as it should be.