1986, Texas. Homophobic womaniser Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is completely oblivious of AIDS, even as it spreads through the world, terrifying the public. So when Ron contracts HIV, he is blindsided. Given just 30 days to live, he tries in vain to be included in the AZT drug trial. Ron seeks out other untested, alternative medications in Mexico, and establishes an underground network of drug supply for the growing increasing numbers of HIV and AIDS.
TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Making its world premiere at TIFF this weekend, Dallas Buyers Club was a big draw at a festival lousy with big draws. The press line for director Jean-Marc Vallée’s (The Young Victoria; Café de Flore) sixth feature, which tells the true story of a Texas man who took his AIDS diagnosis and treatment into his own hands, formed an Aztec maze in the screening venue, snaking around corners and streaming down and then back up an enormous staircase. Star Matthew McConaughey, over the last year or so, has become a dubious walking advertisement for the film: top suggestions appending a Google of his name now include 'skinny," 'weight loss," and 'diet."
It is very hard to stop worrying about McConaughey.
That kind of physical transformation tends to spark awards chatter long before a film’s release, and that chatter reached shall we say critical mass in the Aztec press line for Dallas Buyers Club. The film we were waiting for fulfilled its promise several times over. Here the story of Ron Woodroof, who became a black-market wholesaler for the unapproved drugs that kept him alive seven years past his prognosis, is repackaged as an exceptionally well-designed Oscar vehicle. The vehicle does all the things it is supposed to do—many of them very well—and while the viewer may not object to the ride (after all every successful movie is a kind of ride), and in fact admire much of the view, that strong 'new Oscar’ smell pervades the film.
That’s not a real complaint. Or it’s a complaint that’s tough to defend, especially with a story as fascinating and a character and performance as absorbing as what is found here. McConaughey’s Woodroof is already sick when we meet him at a rodeo in mid-1980s Texas. A steer thrashes its rider to the dirt just beyond the bullpen where Ron has not one but two girls on the go: sex and death, kissing like cousins. The script (by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) works as quickly to establish Ron’s sexism, bigotry, and racism: women are 'pussy," gays are 'faggots," and Arabs are 'sand niggers." And so the dance of the repellent but charismatic and soon-to-be-redeemed character begins.
Ron receives his diagnosis early in the film; it is 1986, when confusion as to who got AIDS and how was still rampant. Given 30 days to live by his doctors (Jennifer Garner, playing good doctor to Denis O’Hare’s unfeeling company man), he cycles through denial, rage, and the rest, in a well-directed scene marked by intuitive, hand-held camerawork. Vallée begins to count Ron days—by day seven he’s begging to be included in the hospital’s AZT trials. Having been rejected, by day eight Ron is using an inside connection to get dosage delivered via hospital dumpster. The first of several montage interludes shows him popping AZT in between snorts of liquor, coke, and local talent.
Ron’s raging lust for life is presented as a given, justified more by animal instinct than his current circumstances. Which, between the blackout partying and the kind of friends (including Dallas Roberts and the always welcome Steve Zahn) who fail to notice when one of them is about to drop dead, look pretty bleak. On this and several other counts, the casting of McConaughey, he of the bongo habit and infectious catchphrase, proves well played. McConaughey, who begins the film looking as poorly as I hope he ever will, grows even more emaciated as Ron’s condition worsens. That an actor known for his casual virility should appear so physically devastated makes the attack on Ron’s many appetites more deeply and terribly felt. It is very hard to stop worrying about McConaughey, though, and wishing he hadn’t pushed his body to such extremes.
The buyers club of the title refers to the underground that sprang up in HIV and AIDS-affected communities around the United States (and the world) at the height of the epidemic. The U.S. in particular moved slowly to treat a disease believed to affect mainly homosexual populations, a disgrace Dallas Buyers Club treats only broadly, if for its purposes effectively. Disenchanted with AZT, Ron makes connections in Mexico, and with the help of Rayon (a remarkable Jared Leto), a delicate transgendered person he meets in hospital, begins shuttling and selling experimental drugs to desperate Dallas patients. Shades of Erin Brockovich inflect the film’s move into questionable medical and federal regulation practices, as Ron points to the government’s inaction in defending his operation.
Of course, as he becomes part of the band of outsiders that showed immense strength and heroic resourcefulness in the face of an unimaginable plague, Ron’s sexism, bigotry, and racism all come under review, and he begins to show interest in someone other than himself. Despite a canvas—and a character, and a weight loss story—this big and broad, Dallas Buyers Club succeeds by its smallest moments, those that pay tribute not only to Woodroof’s memory, but to an entire league of human suffering, community, and comfort.
Watch 'Dallas Buyers Club'
Thursday 16 July, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming at SBS On Demand after broadcast)
Saturday 18 July, 1:50am on SBS World Movies
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Steve Zahn, Jennifer Garner, Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto
What's it about?
1986, Texas. Homophobic womaniser Ron Woodruff (McConaughey, in an Oscar-winning performance) is completely oblivious of AIDS, even as it spreads through the world, terrifying the public. So when Ron contracts HIV, he is blindsided. Given just 30 days to live, he tries in vain to be included in the AZT drug trial. Ron seeks out other untested, alternative medications in Mexico, and establishes an underground network of drug supply for the growing increasing numbers of HIV and AIDS. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., Wild, Big Little Lies).