Review – Dallas Buyers Club
It is 1985: Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), an electrician, rodeo clown and noted homophobe, has been diagnosed with HIV and given thirty days to live. Isolated by his friends, stonewalled by the hospital system and desperate for treatment, he eschews the drug trial process and gets involved in the world of unregulated drugs. After his miraculous recovery, Ron sets up his own clinic selling FDA-unapproved drugs to his fellow sufferers – mostly gay men – but it’s when he forms a business relationship with Rayon (Jared Leto) that he begins to question his prejudices.
Leto’s performance is far and away the stand-out here. His charismatic portrayal of a transgender woman is layered, sympathetic, compassionate, funny, heartfelt and warm. Although the character is mostly a foil, the film still gives her a lot to do: she’s the one who gets the best digs in at Ron for his homophobia, and it’s through her response to his behaviour that we ultimately see him develop as a character. The supporting role steals the spotlight, even alongside McConaughey’s colourful and commanding performance. (Jennifer Garner, by contrast, goes for wall-flower and pulls it off a little too well.)
Unfortunately, though, Dallas Buyers Club can be moralistically heavy-handed. It gives us this satisfying narrative arc of a homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic cowboy who learns to empathise with people he fears and despises. But it’s a development that comes a little bit polemical, and makes Ron Woodroof seem more like a two-dimensional caricature than a flesh-and-blood individual. The film does have some more subtle touches, though. I particularly liked the sub-plot about the police officer Tucker (Steve Zahn) who need’s Ron’s illegal clinic for his father’s Alzheimer’s meds. The film could have done something more obvious, like make Zahn’s character an AIDS sufferer, but it instead took a more nuanced tack and did better for it.
The AIDS epidemic, through all its pain and tragedy, has left a lasting cultural influence on our society and it’s high time we start to see more mainstream films attempt to grapple with it. Dallas Buyers Club certainly won’t be remembered as the strongest treatment of this subject matter, but it’s an entertaining film marked by some outstanding performances and I can heartily recommend catching up with it.