Lights, Camera, Action! – Dallas Buyers Club (Movie Review)

By Freda Cooper 08.02.2014 1

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! - Oscar nominations 2014

Dallas Buyers Club (UK Rating: 15)

Dallas Buyers Club has quietly crept up on UK audiences.  A couple of months ago, when it opened in the USA, American critics gave it a warm, but not ecstatic, reception and, at the time, hardly anybody over here had heard of it. That all changed once the awards season got underway, and there were just two reasons - Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

The film is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, a hustler and part-time rodeo rider, who is diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985, when the disease was a death sentence. With just 30 days to live, he tracks down medication available over the border in Mexico that could save his life, but also realises there is money to be made and sells it to fellow sufferers. When he sets up a buyers club to get round the law, he finds himself joining forces with people he would have previously avoided and, together, they campaign to make effective medication widely available.

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It's artificial to separate a movie and its acting, but the performances of McConaughey and Leto stand so far apart from the rest of the film, it's inevitable in this instance. Both, as most will know, lost substantial amounts of weight for their roles and their painfully thin frames are a testament to their dedication both to the film and their craft. Leto, who plays the would-be transsexual Rayon, has his face buried under a thick layer of make up throughout the film, so it's difficult to see the effect of HIV on him - until his body is revealed. For McConaughey as Woodroof, his haunting face says it all - sunken cheeks and eyes, hawkish nose - and his near skeletal appearance simply underlines it.

There is, of course, more to their performances than just weight loss. McConaughey gives viewers the brutal truth about Ron Woodroof - homophobic, racist, promiscuous, cocaine snorting and frequently drunk. With that lifestyle, he has more than enough weapons of self-destruction to choose from, yet the one that threatens his life is the one he least expects - unprotected sex. He's almost impossible to like and, even in the latter stages of the film when he's embroiled in battles with the Food and Drug Administration, the fact that he's made money from HIV sufferers always lurks somewhere in the background. His campaigning could be seen as heroic, but this man is no hero. However, the fact that the audience supports him, albeit reluctantly at times, speaks volumes for McConaughey's performance.

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Leto's Rayon is infinitely more sympathetic. His sassy attitude thinly disguises that all he wants in life is to be accepted for who he is; a man born in the wrong body. He is desperate for genuine love, the love he knows he lost when his father discovered his lifestyle. The scene where they meet for what turns out to be the last time brings a lump to the throat.

Performances aside, this is a film of two distinct halves, with the first one coming out on top. Woodroof's diagnosis, followed by his search for medication and the setting up of the buyers' club are infused with an urgency that fades in the second half. The 30 days he had left to live are long gone and he's now more of a jet-setting businessman, travelling around the world to find alternative sources of medication and battling against the FDA. It's less gripping and it's almost as if the movie needed to take a breather after all the intensity of the first half. The trouble is, it also loses its momentum and never really gets it back.

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Essentially, Dallas Buyers Club is about outsiders. Rayon has always been one and has learned how to deal with it. For Woodroof, though, it's a whole new ball game. When news of his diagnosis leaks out, he's ostracised by his work colleagues, evicted from his trailer and loses his job. However, his attitude means he's also an outsider among the community of HIV sufferers, most of whom are homosexual and who regard him and the medications he's trying to sell with suspicion - at the outset, at least. He and Rayon make the most unlikely of business partners and their scenes together start out being barbed and tense but gradually move closer to mutual respect - although Ron is still less than comfortable when they eventually give each other a hug.

[score=8]Dallas Buyers Club has given the movie dictionary a new word - of sorts. McConnaissance.  It's shorthand for how Matthew McConaughey turned his back on rom-coms and, because of roles in the likes of Killer Joe, Mud and Bernie, has become the King of Indie Movies. His performance in Dallas Buyers Club is a career best, and looks likely to make him King of Hollywood, as well, on Oscar night.

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Good ol' Matty-boy is a bit hit and miss for me. For instance, I really didn't like Mud, despite all the rave reviews, yet quite enjoyed his performance in The Paperboy. I still think I prefer his comedic stints, though.

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