Dallas Buyers Club

We’re all calling it a “McConnaissance” right? You know, a kind of critical resurgence of an actor whose name has become associated with fluffy rom-coms and posters in which he’s cocking-a-snook at whichever hen party has decided to van up to the roadside multiplex? Well, for better or worse (better) Matthew McConaughey is now too old to play those kinda parts, so he’s back to being in good films that showcase his acting chops, none more so than Dallas Buyers Club, probably his best role to date.

Ron Woodruff is a racist, homophobic, redneck Texan hick. He huffs gack like no tomorrow, downs hard liquor from the bottle and shags whatever he can get his hands on. Pretty soon this all catches up to Ron and he finds out he’s contracted HIV, which as you can imagine to a racist, homophobic, redneck Texan hick in the early 80s, seems more than a little embarrassing. Without the ability to get on the necessary drug trial, Ron decides to find other medication for his condition, which seems to work a little better, leading him to distribute it to fellow sufferers in the Dallas area, much to the chagrin of the FDA.

This is most definitely a film that is driven by its performances. McConaughey as Woodruff shows real range and depth as we see his character transform throughout the course of the narrative, and he gets enough screen time and big close ups so we don’t forget that it is very much his film. That said, Jennifer Garner, the only doctor to see the benefits of what Woodruff is doing, is really well written, and Jared Leto, Woodruff’s transvestite business partner, is almost unrecognisable – occasionally he dials up the sass a little too much, but his scenes are some of the most emotionally affecting.

There’s real skill in how the story is structured too – occasionally when narratives take place over a long period of time a writer will throw in clunky exposition to make sure you’re up to speed, but not so here. The elisions, which are necessary, never detract from the rhythm of the film.

The tone too is spot on. Jean-Marc Vallée’s palette is stark, arresting and visually uncomfortable. The opening scene of a highly unromanticised Rodeo arena, with the doleful Rodeo clown front and centre, operates as a wonderful and effective metaphor throughout the film. Huge credit must go to Vallée for striking the right emotional balance too – in another director’s hands this could have been mawkish, sentimental garbage. Vallée knows when to pull the camera away and move on to the next scene. I’m not saying that’s because he’s French and so has grown up with a film tradition that values subtlety, but also, that’s exactly what I’m saying. James Cameron couldn’t have made this movie if his life depended on it.

Rather than this being a by-the-numbers Oscar film that throws a load of good actors out there without much surrounding it, there’s quite a pointed political message underneath. While Woodruff begins as a morally bankrupt character, the reality of his situation causes his outlook to change – as it would to anyone I should have thought. Even prior to his diagnosis you get a glimpse of the good side of his character as he calls an ambulance for a severely injured worker when others won’t on account of the worker being an illegal immigrant.

So, Woodruff is not the villain, nor are his racist, homophobic friends really – they’re just seen as products of their society, probably with the same capacity to change that Woodruff has. No, the villains are the suits, this is made abundantly clear. The whole film acts as a huge indictment to the American medical association and, given the wrangling surrounding Obamacare and whatnot now, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Even in the summative captions of the film (it is based on a true story after all, so you’re gonna get some summative captions) the FDA are not let off. Now, such political messages are unlikely to endear Vallée to the Academy, so I’d be surprised if Dallas Buyers Club picked up that Best Picture award, but don’t be surprised if this McConnaissance ends with Matthew holding that golden statue come March.

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