Dallas Buyers Club Movie Review

Featuring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writers: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Movie website: www.focusfeatures.com/dallas_buyers_club
Australian release date: Thursday 13 Feb, 2014

Reviewers’ verdicts:
rolanstein: An absorbing biopic, elevated by superb lead and support performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto respectively.
Karen: Quite good.

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a hard-livin’ Texan cowboy who contracts HIV/AIDS from an intravenous drug-using rodeo groupie, and is given 30 days to live. Refusing to accept the prognosis and rejecting approved drug treatments, he seeks more effective alternative medicines from outside the US. With his health improving under self-treatment, he forms an unlikely but pragmatically necessary business alliance with transvestite Rayon, distributing unapproved drugs to other HIV/AIDS sufferers via a lucrative Dallas-based ‘buyers club’.

Review 1: (rolanstein)
As depicted prior to his HIV/AIDS diagnosis, Ron Woodroof is a bronco-ridin’ hard-drinkin’ foul-cussin’ coke-sniffin’ rodeo-groupie-ruttin’ hell-raisin’ devil-may-care Southern boy. A blockhead macho arsehole, in other words, complete with all the attitudes that attend that condition, including rampant homophobia. The movie is set in the 80s, a time when HIV/AIDS is widely perceived to be a “gay disease”, and of no concern, therefore, to assertively hetero anti-faggot crew like Ron and his mates.

My, how it all changes when Woodroof is medically investigated after a fainting fit and is diagnosed with the unthinkable. He is in denial, insisting his results must have been mixed up in the path lab, but his drinking buddies aren’t so sure. Shrinking away from him in the pub, they are suspicious that he is a closet One-of-Them, but mostly terrified that he is contagious.

In hospital for AZT injections, he is appalled to be sharing a ward with a drag queen, Rayon (Jared Leto). His enforced marginalisation is hammered home when he discharges himself from hospital and finds himself locked out of his apartment. A good ol’ boy no longer, he is now a pariah, forever ousted from the territory he only days before strutted with rooster swagger. And it is the personal transformation he must now make as a result of this and the dread Visitor that has come to stay, that is the most gripping and fascinating aspect of Dallas Buyers Club.

The historical backstory is an important element of the film. The initial ineffectiveness of conventional HIV/AIDS drug treatment, the conservative attitude of the medical community towards alternative medicines, the incapacity of the legal system to address obvious systemic shortcomings even when the human toll was evident and rising dramatically, the ignorance and bigotry that informs the often inhumane attitudes of the greater community, the desperation and despair of those afflicted with the disease – all are integral to Ron’s Woodroof’s story. And these relevant contexts of the times are presented well enough.

But McConaughey’s powerhouse performance as Ron makes the film. When Ron’s bigotry gradually slips away as he gets to know the person behind Rayon’s drag queen facade, and the mostly gay clients of his Dallas Buyers Club rally to support him in his fight against the authorities who are determined to shut him down, his humanity begins shining through. His business is no longer entirely profit-driven. He now cares about his clients. Apart from his indomitable maverick spirit and some rough edges that go along with it, he is virtually unrecognisable from the macho jerk of the opening scenes. It is a measure of McConaughey’s soaring performance skills that he is so convincing in carrying off this almost unbelievable transformation.

Jared Leno provides a perfect foil for McConaughey’s character in his sensitive and endearing portrayal of the melancholy tragic clown, Rayon. These two characters give the AIDS crisis of the 80s (and beyond, for that matter) two very different – almost opposing – human faces. As they fight their inevitably doomed individual battles, they attain a grace and dignity that is irresistibly powerfully affecting without lapsing into sentimentality, the two “sides” they represent merging into one, their fight now for a common cause: to have their humanity and plight recognised by authorities caught up in regulations and self-serving distractions.

Jennifer Garner is a bit of a weak link as Dr. Eve Saks, a hospital medico won over to Woodroof’s cause. Their developing personal closeness seems a little forced at times, and might have been better managed. The other characters are relatively minor and unremarkable.

McConaughey’s star has been on the rise, and in Dallas Buyers Club he has staked a claim as one of today’s genuine greats. It’s hard and probably not even valid to take him and Leno out of the equation in order to otherwise assess the work, so I’m not going to try. Suffice to say, this is a very good movie, intrinsically emotionally-charged, and elevated to dramatic heights by two superb performances. Recommended.

Review 2: (Karen)
Dallas Buyers Club opens with a confronting sequence of casual sex in a holding pen next to a rodeo arena, and neatly makes the link between risky behaviour and fatal outcomes, as in the background a bull rider is unseated and gored, possibly to death. Our protagonist, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), one of the grunting, rutting threesome, is thereafter established as a fairly stereotypical homophobic redneck, and a sharp character to boot. He’s also pretty obviously sick, emaciated – McConaughey wasted to play the role – and coughing chronically.

It’s the 1980s, and when Woodroof lands in hospital after a workplace accident, it turns out he has AIDS, and his doctor gives him 30 days to live. Doctors probably know better now than to quantify expected lifespan, but it’s a handy device for the filmmaker, who can number the days and thus keep the audience abreast of the chronology of the tale (although there are plenty of calendars to help, too), all the while building satisfaction at Woodroof’s confounding the prognosis.

Naturally it’s not all plain sailing. Woodroof is up against a little-understood virus, unproven remedies, and his own bull-at-a-gate habits – and that’s before Big Pharma and the FDA start getting toey about his pesky inclination to bend the rules to try to save his own life. This is where the Club comes in: it’s illegal for unauthorised people to prescribe or sell drugs, but there’s nothing to stop you from supplying them free, to those who pay a handsome monthly “membership” fee. Woodroof didn’t identify this loophole himself, but after discovering it he and his (business!) partner, Rayon (Jarod Leto) set up a tightly controlled operation.

Now here’s the thing about Dallas Buyers Club: it’s a biopic; Ron Woodroof was a real person and he did these things. It’s also a commentary about Big Pharma and the FDA, effectively personified in the one dogged character. And it’s a character study, with Ron making a believable transition from his redneck roots into someone who champions the cause of common courtesy for all, albeit in his own roughshod way, and without becoming a saint. The script makes a fair fist of balancing these elements, avoiding most of the pitfalls of the didactic biopic – although Jennifer Garner’s second appearance as a doctor describing early clinical trials of AZT, talking woodenly about “toxicity and reduced efficacy” is horrible to watch – but is trapped by the major one of being too long, and trying to include too many of the twists and turns of Woodroof’s struggle.

And I neither know nor care whether Ron Woodroof actually fell for a female clinician, but it comes across as Hollywood-cheesy here – especially when Jennifer Garner is cast. Her pretty frown and plump-pillow pout are adorable, but the character is not credible. Nor is it relevant that her Dr Saks overcomes her preference for all things colourless and allows herself to hang Woodroof’s mother’s flower painting, and to feel some respect for Ron himself – we have watched him grow ourselves, and don’t need any romantic corroboration.

It’s mostly good, this film, but despite excellent performances by McConaughey and Leto, I felt it only transcended its material once, in a scene where Woodroof happens into a butterfly house where caterpillars are being produced for their therapeutic secretions. Hundreds of butterflies alight on him, resembling, perhaps, the marks of Kaposi’s sarcoma, or representing hope, or the numbers of souls “liberated” by the scourge of AIDS – we’re left to make what we will of the scene, which is lit by a fizzing fluorescent light, and intercut with Rayon in extremis.

McConaughey’s up for a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Ron Woodroof; Leto for Best Actor in a Supporting Role; and Dallas Buyers Club for Best Picture, among other nominations. Definitely worth a look.

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6 thoughts on “Dallas Buyers Club Movie Review”

  1. Good review, rolanstein. You clearly liked it more than I did – I really struggled with the short verdict, and made myself laugh when I wrote “Quite good”!

    I reckon if they’d cast a different woman in the Eve Saks role, I would have thought it a better picture overall. The bizarre idea held by film financers that a female love interest must be “pretty” – while a man can look like a dog’s arse – spoils many a film for me. I hasten to add that dogs’ arses are very attractive to other dogs, and that is just as it should be. And that men resembling dogs’ arses … oh, I’ll just stop now.

  2. Thought your review was excellent, Karen, regardless of our assessments diverging slightly.

    I guess I would have given it a “pretty good” rather than “quite good”, but as per my review, I thought the two standout performances made it, and that the film itself was less than outstanding. Dunno how it’s been nominated as Best Pic at the Academys, but then again…you know how suspicious I am about that institution. So, we’re not so far apart in our assessments.

    Completely agree about Garner. Interesting that we both saw fit to comment on her not making the grade in her role. Wonder if other reviewers have remarked similarly? It wasn’t anything to do with her looks that made her unconvincing for me, though. There are not too many actresses who make it who are ordinary-looking, are there? Just part of the game. Nup, it was her performance I wasn’t comfortable with. And to be fair, I think the lines they gave her were partly to blame, as well as the narrative and the place her character occupied within it.

    On looks, something that has been shitting me: every bloody actor of both genders these days has a perfect set of gnashers, inevitably gleaming brilliant white. Would a self-abusing smoking hard-drinking type like good ol’ Ron keep up his dental hygiene? Don’t think so. His teeth would be yellowed and stained. McConaughey opens his mouth and BING! Could be playing in a Colgate ad. Films have attained an astonishing realism these days. Why is this teeth thing always overlooked? It bothers me!

    So, you’re saying McConaughey has a face like a dog’s arse? Bit harsh, innit?


  3. No, McConaughey is quite handsome and has beautiful teeth. The English do it better. Nobody could accuse Alan Rickman of having unrealistically good teeth. But perhaps English actors are more concerned about being actors, while Americans dream of being movie stars.

    I’m trying to recall if Robert Redford’s teeth looked like they belonged to a thirty-year-old with a good dentist in The Company You Keep. I suspect they did.

  4. Like most actors these days, I highly suspect McConaughey has beautiful caps, rather than beautiful teeth. Good for him, bad for realism when he’s playing roles like Ron Woodroof.

    Didn’t see The Company You Keep, but I can tell ya, old Robert’s choppers are gleaming and perfect in All Is Lost. Hollywood dentists must be thriving.

  5. If Ron were anything like the bull riders around here, he would have perfect false teeth,because most rodeo riders do, it’s a hazard of the sport.

    Also, this was a true story, Ron was a dashing, handsome ladies’ man, until the end, favoring leather jackets, a porn-stache, and aviator shades. He was known here in Texas. He wasn’t a garden variety toothless drug addict, just someone who enjoyed all vices.

  6. Hahaha – thanks for the personal insight, Lajitas. I never imagined Ron to be a “toothless drug addict” – just thought someone who smoked as he did would have stained pegs. False teeth didn’t occur to me!

    So, happy to let Ron/Matthew off on this one. Not so, all these other flicks where every actor beams with white mouthy radiance.

    Ta for the comment. Welcome back any time.


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