HANDS DOWN, THIS is Matthew McConaughey’s movie and a stunning, mesmerizing piece of acting. In the last few years, McConaughey has evolved from “Ghosts of Girlfriend’s Past” (a dreadful movie, but one in which he clearly forged a great connection with Jennifer Garner, to, presumably, act in “Dallas Buyer’s Club” for next to nothing) to “The Lincoln Lawyer”, “The Paperboy” “Mud”, “Magic Mike”, and now his crowning glory: “Dallas Buyers Club”
Apparently, several other big names, such as Brad Pitt and Bradley Cooper had shown interest in this un-bankable script. No-one wanted to back a movie about Aids, and transvestism, where the good guys is a bum and dies in the end. Just as well. It’s a movie that McConaughey owns so thoroughly that you can’t possibly imagine any other actor in the role. Ron Woodroof, McConaughey’s –real life – character, is an unlikable homophobic, loose-living, drug taking, alcoholic ladies’ man. A gaunt, skeletal McConaughey manages to invest this disreputable reprobate into someone the audience can root for, as, driven to extremes, he cons his way into becoming an unlikely champion of dying, mainly gay HIV sufferers, desperate for life-prolonging drugs.
The story follows the battle for survival of said Woodroof, who is given one month to live after he’s diagnosed with AIDS. Set in Dallas in 1985, when AIDS was very much seen as the gay man’s disease, Woodroof’s search for a cure leads him initially to illegally purchased AZT, then being touted as a potential cure. AZT simply strips away much of his immune system, which is slowly re-built by the care of a renegade doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dune). It’s here in Mexico that Woodroof has the revelation that the non-FDA approved drugs available there, which are working for him, can be a potential life-line to many back in the USA. Since it’s illegal to sell non-FDA approved drugs in the USA, he starts up his Dallas Buyer’s Club: a membership only club, where members are given the drugs.
Woodroof’s search for the cocktail of drugs that leads him to Japan, Amsterdam and Israel, also becomes his journey of redemption. Slowly we see emerge, flashes of genuine empathy, decency and a kind of rebellious heroism. Woodroof’s virulent homophobia flakes away to reveal a man of conscience, flavoured with old fashioned, seductive Southern charm. McConaughey’s brilliance is that he keeps his characterization richly textured. Woodroof doesn’t change from sinner to saint; he simply manages to channel his outlaw attitudes away from self-destructive drugs and drink toward something far more productive: programs that help others via the evasion of FDA laws.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee (“The Young Victoria”) never allows the story to slip into mawkishness. Woodroof’s battle to find drugs that work isn’t some sort of act of selfless heroism. As the title suggests, this is about business. Woodroof is running a business, and like any savvy businessman, he has to journey the world in search of reputable suppliers. He just happens to be dealing in illegal drugs that deliver healing, not highs.
Along the journey, Woodroof forges two deep friendships – a practical, business-driven friendship with Rayo, a cross dressing drug addict (Jared Leno in the role of his career) and Eve Saks, a doctor torn between her duty to her patients and her loyalty to what she realizes is a morally compromised hospital administration (a vapid Jennifer Garner oozing sympathy and entirely outclassed by the McConaughey/Leno double act).
The barnstorming performances of McConaughey and Leno are so all-absorbing that it’s easy to be distracted by the bigger issue “Dallas Buyers Club” hints on: Big Pharma’s corrupt practices and its too cosy relationship with the FDA. The story notes that the initial drug trials and emphasis on AZT was prolonged despite early – published -warnings of the potential dangers of the drug. It was people like Woodroof (the movie only skirts on the work of groups such as ACT UP and others such as the Florida Buyers’ Club) whose search for alternative treatments – and not the FDA – that helped de-stigmatize the disease and drive for safer drug ‘cocktails’.
But the story only notes this.
The story also suggests, quite sententiously, that sex is cheap, dirty and a sure route to death (the beginning scenes that juxtapose a copulating Woodroof with a bull-rider being gored to death is tellingly symbolic)
What’s lacking in the movie is a stronger sense of a governing idea.
It’s primarily and almost exclusively about Woodroof and Leno. The contrast between their illegal business practices and Big Pharma’s immoral ones are stated but never really explored. Woodroof must battle not only the law, but a legal system sponsored by Big Pharma. It’s good stuff that’s inserted from time to time, but never quite explored. Of course it would be unfair to criticize a work of art for not doing something you’d expect it to.
My problem with “Dallas Buyers Club” is that, though it’s a deliciously, enjoyably well made film (shot in 25 days and costing all of $5M), at its core it feels hollow. It’s a glittering display of brilliant acting, but the protagonist’s rebelliousness heroism is not matched by any rebellious heroism on the part of the film. It’s pays liberal lip service to the fundamental corruption at the heart of drug testing, but nothing much more.