Film Review: Dallas Buyers Club

   It has often been stated that, once a script is in place, casting can be responsible for 90% of a film's success. Never has this been more obvious than in the case of Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club and the casting of  it's principal character, the AIDs inflicted cowboy Ron Woodroof.

   Based on factual events, Dallas Buyers Club tells the tale of the outbreak of HIV in the 1980s and the mass- homophobia and hysteria which surrounded the spread of the little understood virus. Assumed to be contained exclusively to the non-hetero-normatives of society, Woodroof, an All-American, hard-drinking, womaniser, is shocked to find that he too has been diagnosed with the condition despite his total abstinence, and indeed venomous hatred for, gay lifestyles.

   The opening scenes to Vallee's film, which cut between Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) indulging his carnal side with a brace of women whilst a rodeo rider is tossed to the ground from a bull he had been riding bareback, give a less-than-subtle symbolic representation of how our protagonist may have acquired HIV. It's a clunky opening segment which becomes even more ham-fisted when Woodroof and his companions find a newspaper headline detailing the AIDs-related death of "cock sucker" Rock Hudson. Those who have seen Vallee's previous feature C.R.A.Z.Y. will know that the Canadian director is not a fan of understatement or nuance, instead preferring broader brush-strokes. Jared Leto, who plays a trans-gender woman named Rayon, also shies away from micro-shading in his performance; imagine Nicky Wire as brought to life by Hanna-Barbera.

   Dallas Buyers Club belongs to Matthew McConaughey. It is his beating heart that powers the film and imbibes it with a soul of it's own. If one were to imagine, say, Christian Bale in the lead role, Vallee's movie would be unspeakably insufferable. Thankfully, a rejuvenated (and emaciated for the role) McCoughnahey delivers another sterling performance full of many of the elements which Vallee's filmography have previously lacked - brio, wit, warmth, sadness, empathy and, most crucial of all, humanity. Woodroof transcends caricature in McCoughnahey's hands and as we see him battle resentment, disappointment, denial and terror as he attempts to come to terms with the unjust death sentence he has been handed - McCoughnahey gives us as "in" to understanding a fate so existentially cruel it is almost impossible to fully comprehend.

   Once it becomes apparent to Woodroof that the FDA-approved drugs he has been receiving won't be able to sustain his life for much longer, the Texan makes a choice to find the medicine he needs from outside the United States. A trip to Mexico, and the meeting of an unlicensed doctor, present Woodroof with a chance to acquire the cocktail he needs to preserve his life and, as to be expected of a Reagan-era American, a further opportunity to make money by importing the goods back across the border and re-selling the items to those in the gay community he had so openly loathed until recently. In capitalism, there's no such thing as a bad buyer - but, as to be expected for an Oscar nominated film, perhaps Woodroof can learn a bit of humility and philanthropy on his way? In contrast, he is smartly pitted against the dual forces of "Big Pharma" and the FDA who have formed an unholy alliance to capitalise and financially gain from the AIDs crisis regardless of how many people must die (and pay for the rights to do so) - it becomes clear that, rather than the "drug dealer" Woodroof becomes, it may be the unrelenting force of aggressive capitalism which is corrupt.

   Vallee's is a thought-provoking, albeit straightforward, movie which achieves far greater than the sum of its parts due to a lead who shows us just how sad and beautiful, ludicrous and painful, life can be. After years in the critical wilderness, it would take a fool to bet against McCoughnahey at the Oscars this year.
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