Dir: Jean-Marc Vallée. US. 2013. 117mins
A mesmerising lead performance by Matthew McConaughey, as a rowdy red-neck electrician and rodeo cowboy who leads a lifestyle of booze, drugs and uninhibited sex in the mid-1980s and who is shocked to find himself diagnosed as HIV Positive, is the vibrant core of the absorbing Dallas Buyers Club, a film likely to feature strongly in the awards run-up, with McConaughey a shoo-in for a Best Actor nomination.
McConaughey, whose weight-loss for the role is admirable, but is balanced by his trademark bravado and sense of humour that helps make Ron Woodruff such a striking and memorable character.
How this most imperfect of men segueways from two-fisted homophobic Texan cowboy to a strident AIDs campaigner (in his own sweet way), while also fighting to stay alive after being told he has just 30 days to live, is wonderfully told in Jean-Marc Vallée’s beautifully made film. It is a powerful real-life story, brimming with terrific performances and also punctuated by delightful visual flourishes.
As the film opens Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is at a rodeo, casually having sex with a couple of women, boozing and gambling heavily and getting into fights. Gaunt but feisty, he is a blunt, angry, Texan quick to be as belligerent as possible, but when he finds himself in hospital after an accident at work he is blindsided by the news given to him by doctors. He is diagnosed as HIV-positive, and given 30 days to live but angrily refuses to believe what he is told and stomps away.
But as he gets more and more ill he comes to accept the truth, and heads into the library (the joys of pre-Internet films is that filmmakers can use the old library scene for their exposition) and embarks on a crash course in AIDs research. He learns about the lack of approved treatments and medications in the US, and so crosses the border, eventually meeting the more enlightened Dr Vass (an long-haired and impressive Griffin Dunne) who agrees to help ship illegal product to the US.
Soon Ron is smuggling much-needed treatment across the border, but his homophobic manner means he has problems selling the medication. He answer it to strike a deal with flamboyant drag queen Rayon (Jared Leto), who he met while in hospital, and between the pair start selling medicines and supplements, establishing the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ – where people pay a monthly membership to receive products - as a way of dodging police attention.
The film follows Ron as he travels the world – from Israel to Japan – in search of new drugs, and also tries convince his amenable doctor (Jennifer Garner) about the failures of American experimental drug AZT. His journey is also one of self-discovery as he forges an operation to help AIDs sufferers and learns appreciate, admire and even love the gay men that the illness brings him close to, developing an almost brotherly affection for the increasingly ill Rayon.
The story of this accidental campaigner – who died in 1992 – is elegantly told by Jean-Marc Vallée, who made C.R.A.Z.Y. and The Young Victoria, weaving in terrific production design and costumes, and driven by a stunning performance by Matthew McConaughey, whose weight-loss for the role is admirable, but is balanced by his trademark bravado and sense of humour that helps make Ron Woodruff such a striking and memorable character.
Production companies: Truth Entertainment, Evolution Independent
International sales: Voltage Pictures, www.voltagepictures.com
Producers: Robbie Brenner, Rachel Winter
Executive producers: David Bushell, Nathan Ross, Joe Newcomb, Tony Notargiacomo, Nicolas Chartier, Zev Foreman, Logan Levy, Holly Wiersma, Cassian Elwes
Screenplay: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Cinematography: Yves Bélanger
Editors: John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa
Production designer: John Paino
Main cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn, Denis O’Hare, Griffin Dunne