As the awards season reaches its height, we’re always hit by a rush of Films About Important Subjects. Most of them are disposable Oscar-bait, but a few slip in that have real conviction behind them - a need to tell an important story regardless of the accolades it could receive. By all accounts, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, the latest film from Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, seems to fit this bill. It takes its subject seriously, but always with a cheeky anarchic wit running underneath, just like its fascinating protagonist.
We’re in Dallas in 1985, and hell-raiser cowboy Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is living a life of violent abandon, satisfying his vices for hard liquor, hot women and any drug he can get his hands on. This all comes to a crashing end, however, when he is diagnosed with AIDS and given a month to live. New experimental drugs are being tested but the public don’t have access to them, so in a moment of inspiration, Ron sets up the Dallas Buyers Club with transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto), where members buy memberships that give them access to unapproved treatments for the disease. However, Ron’s actions are disrupting the established system, and Ron and Rayon have to fight to keep the club going.
The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s hasn’t been as represented in film as much as it should, and ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ thankfully doesn’t dabble on uncomfortable sentimentality. The screenplay from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack is far more concerned with showing people wanting to live rather than waiting to die, and this not only makes the film more powerful but gives it a terrific forward motion. Ron is a man of action, and this is reflected in the film itself. Vallée’s direction is tight and straightforward, allowing ample room for the actors and the screenplay. This isn’t showy filmmaking, but it is a great example of a director in complete control of the material and understanding what it needs. There is an autumnal, washed-out look to the film that gives a sense of nostalgia, a feel for the Dallas landscape and the feeling of a world caught in the grips of incoming death. Some might see it as a cop-out to make a film about a heterosexual man during the AIDS epidemic when the plague struck homosexual men hardest, but there’s something refreshing seeing the period from a new perspective and one that highlights the harassment and intolerance that affected those with AIDS. There’s a sensitivity towards the subject, but not at the expense of honesty, and as much as the film isn’t afraid to be anarchic and very funny, it also isn’t afraid to throw emotional punches.
The real highlight of the film is the performances, and most especially from McConaughey. He has been experiencing an extraordinary return-to-form of late, and his performance here is one of his most impressive. McConaughey has always been a physically captivating actor, and that bombast and electricity is on full display here. He throws himself entirely into the character of Ron, unafraid to be ugly and crude where necessary, and the moments where we find Ron at his absolute low, McConaughey proves himself an actor of great emotional power. This is certainly a career best for him, and further proof that he is one of the most exciting actors working today. Much has also been made of Jared Leto’s performance as Rayon, and there’s no denying he is terrific in the part. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is a brave performance, because the only bravery really is in him playing a transvestite and that’s hardly an act of bravery, but he does give Rayon tremendous conviction and his chemistry with McConaughey is electric. There is a sense of showmanship though that McConaughey doesn’t possess, and you can’t quite shake the fact you are watching a performance. The supporting cast is also excellent, especially Jennifer Garner as Ron’s sympathetic doctor Eve. I’ve always thought highly of Garner, and here she proves her talents, going head-to-head with McConaughey without breaking a sweat. Hopefully this will be the start of more notice being taken of her skills as an actor.
The real highlight of the film is the performances, and most especially from McConaughey.
The problem with trying to show one of the greatest human catastrophes on screen is that the scale of the AIDS epidemic is almost too immense to comprehend, but ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ aims its focus directly on one man and his ingenious attempt to work against the tide. There’s a beautiful anarchy to this film, intelligently directed and written with passionate performances. It’s also a great surprise that a film about such a terrible moment in history can be this charming and entertaining. It isn’t as cinematic as the other films this awards season, but perhaps ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ will have more lasting power in the future. So rarely is there a film with its heart so firmly in the right place.