Matthew McConaughey’s phoenix-like rise over the past 18 months has been one of the most heartening sights in recent Hollywood history. Though his early work was spotted with moments of greatness, the doldrums that followed had him written-off in many eyes, despite odd flashes of interest here and there. Slowly but surely the majority of us turned our attentions elsewhere.
But then it’s almost as if at some point, probably around the end of the last decade, McConaughey, restless with his drifting career, looked around at the playing field and saw a lack of truly great leading men in his generation. Where did all the serious players go? You can almost see him squint a little, grin and say to himself, “Well, I might just have a piece of that…”
Because look where we are now, some short months later. McConaughey is not the only great leading man of his generation, but he’s going some distance to get on the shortlist. If Friedkin’s Killer Joe turned heads, and Nichols’ Mud kept our attention then Dallas Buyers Club is where we can all accept that the man is back and he means business. And with HBO’s (ridiculously good) True Detective backing him up on the small screen, there’s little argument to be made against him.
Dallas Buys Club, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, appears from a distance to be a rather shrewd venture for all involved. McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a fast-livin’, unenlightened rodeo man in saltiest Texas. Within minutes of meeting him we get the picture; a swindling, drug-addled Lothario and homophobe. Vallée’s film is as unapologetic about this as Woodroof appears himself. When he learns he has contracted the HIV virus that leads to AIDS, he slips straight into whisky-soaked denial… for about a week.
Woodroof’s determined about-face is energising; he goes from surly drunk to steely researcher and shrewd manipulator of the law. Frozen out of a clinical trial on AZT, Woodroof grows suspicious of it’s supposed benefits. His life suddenly a precious commodity to him, he goes to Mexico for alternatives; medicines unproven by the FDA and so only available to men like Woodroof through the states’ backdoor. He sees not only his own potential remedy, but a business idea…
Based on a true story and with its white saviour sticking up for a minority group, Dallas Buyers Club brings with it the tentative possibility of both exploitation and open pandering for awards glory. Fortunately the film stays just on the right side of everything. Largely this is thanks to McConaughey’s blistering central turn as well as the script’s refusal to paint Woodroof as a Christ-like hero. McConaughey’s weight loss (which could’ve appeared like a stunt similar to Christian Bale’s frequently-yoyoing BMI) only galvanises the character into a scrappy, wiry, irrepressible rogue. It’s the punctuation mark to the work going on behind the eyes.
The film excels first and foremost as a character piece, and McConaughey isn’t the only one drawing attention in that regard; see Jared Leto’s flamboyant drag queen and junkie named Rayon with whom Woodroof reluctantly partners up, setting prejudices aside at first for the money, but later – as the picture turns more political – for their united cause. Served less well is Jennifer Garner, our sole representative from the medical profession who doesn’t have a hand in the FDA’s pocket.
If Dallas Buyers Club has an open flaw, it is how broadly it paints the argument here in black and white. The broad strokes go on a little thick. On the one side there are the big bad pharmaceutical companies buying-up both the doctors and the law and on the other are Rayon and his ‘friends’. Woodroof’s narrow opinion of homosexuals is never really countered fully. Nevertheless, Woodroof thaws (following the openly predictable through-line of his character arc) and as he does, so Valleé’s film soften it’s sense of caricature.
Vallée’s almost shambolic sensibility is also one of the film’s significant redeeming qualities. In other hands Dallas Buyers Club would have played out like an elegant weepy; a stately prestige picture. But that is not the aesthetic we’re given; foregrounding his actors, Vallée builds the film around them. As such he doesn’t draw attention to beautiful compositions or finessed lighting. There’s very little ego on display here, and it helps set DBC apart from the more earnest Hallmark-style approach. Not only that but when a striking, indelibly cinematic moment appears (and there is one in particular involving butterflies) it feels all the more rewarding.
The film does occasionally suffer in the biopic’s straight-jacket. There’s great momentum early on and especially in the middle, as Woodroof’s drug-smuggling cross-pollinates the movie with a crime flick, but when things turn into a more pointed history lesson on tax audits and court cases, Dallas Buyers Club submits to formula. However, importantly, this remains engaging and soulful thanks to the committed work by the actors.
Every year around this time we get a clutch of films that impress for their technical skill (hello Gravity) or all-round proficiency and gloss (‘sup The Wolf Of Wall Street) and then another tier of messier, slightly more problematic movies bolstered by their humanity and by attention-worthy performances. Dallas Buyers Club falls into the latter category victoriously. If you’re out there with your Oscar scorecard, I wouldn’t write this one off, especially for McConaughey, nor would I miss an opportunity to see it. It’s a little rough, a little scrappy, but one suspects that’s just how Woodroof would’ve wanted it.