Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn
Like the first time you saw Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznik, those first glimpses of Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof, grizzled, alcoholic and notably underweight, are inescapably shocking. The startling visual impact of McConaughey’s extreme weight loss (and that of his co-star Jared Leto, who underwent an identical body transformation) is likely to be ingrained on your mind long after you leave the cinema, but it is the profoundly layered performances that will haunt your memory of this brave, true-life tale.
Woodroof was an electrician, homophobe and hustler living in Dallas, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and given 30 days to live. Abandoned by his friends and left despondent by the American Healthcare System’s lack of available medication to help combat the symptoms of HIV, Woodroof took matters in to his own hands ant began sourcing medicines from across the globe, which he supplied to fellow AIDS suffers in an attempt to ease their suffering as well as his own. While the film’s examination of the FDA and the prejudices of the American pharmaceutical industry are frustratingly undersold, the character study at the heart of Dallas Buyers Club is drawn with subtle poignancy that’s wholly demanding of the narrative’s full attention.
It’s a true testament to McConaughey’s exceptional acting prowess that he manages to fully detract your attention from his eye-opening physical appearance. The Woodroof we meet is a thoroughly detestable character, his vicious redneck persona unlikely to inspire much sympathy for his plight. Yet, McConaughey’s natural performance is so rich that we can’t help but feel his pain as the reality of his diagnoses takes hold. The lack of non-diegetic music adds to the authenticity of the story during the more dramatic elements, McConaughey’s inexhaustible talent providing all the emotion needed to spark the audience’s reaction.
The decision to not shy away from Woodroof’s homophobic beliefs is key to the relationship that grows between him and his eventual business partner Rayon, a transvestite who has also contracted HIV. Jared Leto is an exceptional screen presence, offering the film greater scope in its examination of the disease. Rayon is a soul at the mercy of a society who believe homosexuality itself to be a disease and director Jean-Marc Vallee must be congratulated for managing to balance his exploration of such raw and compelling themes.
Even if Ron’s flirtations with Jennifer Garner’s sympathetic doctor feel excessive, Woodroof and Rayon’s relationship never feels forced, beginning as an opportunity for Woodroof to make more money through his scheme and only blossoming in to friendship much later. Vallee injects this slowly built bond with a tragicomic touch that successfully manages to offer gentle laughs during the film’s quieter moments. While Yves Belanger’s intimate camerawork accentuates the pain, both psychical and mental, our protagonists feel as the growing frustrations of fighting an incurable disease take shape.
Exuding such great power from his performance, McConaughey’s transformation from flimsy rom-com film star to assured actor is complete. The film may not be able to successfully address all the themes it wishes to, but bravely commits to painting a picture fuelled by raw emotion and Grade-A performances.