Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare
Running time: 116 mins
Release: 7th February
Dallas Buyers Club, despite being a more-or-less made-to-order Academy-pleaser, almost makes it to the credits without getting sentimental. The first few scenes show protagonist Ron Woodruff, played by Matthew McConaughey, to be one of the most uncompromising leads there’s been in a film of this budget and hype in a long while. This mood can’t sustain itself, though. Performances need to start looking like Performances sometime, after all, so that they may be given Globes and Oscars.
About the hype: all that noise around Dallas Buyers Club certainly says something about our culture’s body dysmorphia. Christian Bale didn’t get half as much attention for the gut he gained for American Hustle as for the one he lost (and then some) for The Machinist. Matthew McConaughey’s diet of “a spoonful of pudding a day” generated far more column inches than any of the film’s more substantial elements. To gain weight is to be expected—to lose weight is to be admired, or, at least, made frequent mention of. Getting a name for yourself as a method actor of the goes-to-physical extremes sort must be as risky, healthwise, as becoming a vegan or a Viennese Actionist. Keep an eye on those blood sugar levels, Matthew.
Dallas Buyers Club is about Ron, a hard-living electrician, and his struggle to make good after being diagnosed with AIDS. At first he’s unlikeable, almost villainous. By the third act, he’s become a saint, commander-in-chief of the eponymous club; a business enterprise that illegally sources medication still awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval for AIDS victims. The film starts out gritty, becomes a caper, and ends up something like Philadelphia. The uneven tone isn’t really a problem until the saccharine last half-hour.
McConaughey never seemed to have much range, but he always had charm. And the weight loss is admittedly in weird harmony with his usual persona; with such thin limbs, the strutting southerner looks like an Edward Gorey sketch come to life. But with Dallas Buyers Cub he proves that he does have range, whole Texan swathes of it, and there will be Oscars. Jared Leto’s character is a little more troubling. He plays Rayon, the trans woman who becomes Ron’s business partner. She’s a fiction, inserted to better illustrate Ron’s journey from homophobe to gay rights champion. Leto is excellent, but the role is a stereotype, and an ill-informed one at that. A few touching scenes excepted, Rayon is a classic comedy drag queen—flamboyant, sassily ironic, “outrageous.” Comic relief, in other words. Your film is getting too heavy, so you stick in a trans woman suffering with AIDS in 1980s Dallas—it’s the movies, folks.
Dallas Buyers Club is a loose and well-acted medical drama. It’s certainly a victory for McConaughey and director Jean-Marc Vallée, but the film doesn’t quite do justice to the tragic milieu it tries to represent.