Review – Dallas Buyers Club

The McConaissance goes from strength to strength in this moving period drama that breaks free of its Oscar-grabbing shackles thanks to a pair of magnetic performances.

Dallas Buyers Club is a forthright and rousing tale of dogged determination in the face of death lifted by a pair of remarkably raw performances

Dallas Buyers Club is a forthright and rousing tale of dogged determination in the face of death lifted by a pair of remarkably raw performances

The dark days of Failure To Launch and other dire rom-coms that demanded he lean next to someone on the poster are thankfully an increasingly distant chapter in the career of Matthew McConaughey.

In the past couple of years, McConaughey has finally fulfilled the early promise he showed in the likes of Dazed And Confused (“well alright, alright, alright”) and Lone Star and in that relatively short time has become one of the most exciting screen actors working today.

The moment Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) learns he has Aids in Dallas Buyers Club

The moment Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) learns he has Aids in Dallas Buyers Club

Hot on the heels of his memorable cameo in The Wolf Of Wall Street, McConaughey switches gears to play Ron Woodroof, the hard-living redneck electrician and rodeo cowboy whose world collapses from under his feet when he learns he is HIV-positive and in all likelihood will be dead in a month.

Set in 1985, myth and conjecture were still rife when it came to the growing Aids epidemic, not least of all in the mind of the homophobic Ron who, like many people at the time, thought it was a disease restricted to homosexuals. Shunned by friends and family and denied access to what Government-approved antivirals there were at the time, Ron takes matters into his own hands and seeks out whatever drugs he can find that might prolong his life.

Ron (Matthew McConaughey) forms an unlikely business partnership with Rayon (Jared Leto) in Dallas Buyers Club

Ron (Matthew McConaughey) forms an unlikely business partnership with Rayon (Jared Leto) in Dallas Buyers Club

Realising there are many more like him out there, he goes into business with Rayon (Jared Leto), a HIV-positive transgender woman who has the necessary contacts to facilitate the set-up of the Dallas Buyers Club wherein ‘members’ pay a month fee for unapproved medication. As business booms it attracts the unwanted attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which threatens legal action.

Much has been made of the weight both McConaughey (50 lbs) and Leto (30 lbs) lost for their roles and it’s admittedly startling at first to see just how emaciated each actor looks, McConaughey in particular. However, this dramatic weight loss should not distract from what are two of the most committed and honest performances you’ll see all year.

A bond is formed between the sweet-talking Ron (Matthew McConaughey) and his Doc Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) in Dallas Buyers Club

A bond is formed between the sweet-talking Ron (Matthew McConaughey) and his Doc Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) in Dallas Buyers Club

These are golden days for McConaughey and the actor disappears into the role to deliver his most complete performance to date. Ron’s journey from free-wheeling homophobic redneck to compassionate social campaigner never once feels false or ham-fisted and the actor maintains the character’s charm, humour and stubbornness even during his darkest moments.

In his first role for six years, Leto is a revelation. Male actors dressing up as women has largely been used as a tool for comedy in the past, but Leto finds a similar conviction and voraciousness to the remarkable performance given by Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game.

Jared Leto gives a wholly convincing performance as Rayon, a HIV-positive transgender woman, in Dallas Buyers Club

Jared Leto gives a wholly convincing performance as Rayon, a HIV-positive transgender woman, in Dallas Buyers Club

Likewise, Jennifer Garner does well in the tough role of Dr Eve Saks, who forms a bond with Ron and starts to question whether what she and her supervisor Dr Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) are doing to ‘help’ Aids sufferers is actually making a positive difference.

Where the film does fall down is in the black and white way it portrays the conflict between Ron on one side and the FDA and American health care system on the other.

Ron (Matthew McConaughey) in one of his numerous scrapes with the law in Dallas Buyers Club

Ron (Matthew McConaughey) in one of his numerous scrapes with the law in Dallas Buyers Club

Director Jean-Marc Vallée appears to ask Michael O’Neill’s FDA official Richard Barkley to just look angry and menacing the whole time, while O’Hare’s Dr Sevard is little more than a cipher to show how cuddly the health care system and big pharma are.

While the relationship Ron strikes up with Eve is sweetly affecting, it’s his bond with Rayon that’s Dallas Buyers Club‘s beating heart. The moment when Ron instinctively defends Rayon against a former buddy who’s ostracised him comes as much as a surprise to us as it does to the two of them. It’s a beautifully played moment that signals a turning point in their relationship from business associates to friends.

To the film’s credit it never wallows in grief or cynically pulls the heartstrings; what we get instead is a forthright and rousing tale of dogged determination in the face of death lifted by a pair of remarkably raw performances.

28 comments

  1. Tom

    Great review Mark, this was a total hit with me. I think you are right with your eval of McConaughey’s full transformation here (even excluding the weight loss) — he may never have been better than this. Just truly heartbreaking watching him and Leto here. You know, the more I think about it, the tighter the Best Actor race is really going to be. While Chiwetel is (in my mind at least) a lock for the win, McConaughey is going to make it difficult to say the least. We’ll have to see.

    • Three Rows Back

      I hope people don’t get hung up on the weight loss. As for Best Actor, I still want Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave, but I’d be happy enough with McConaughey getting that golden guy.

  2. liamdoesfilm

    Excellent review and glad you liked the film! Reviewed this a few weeks back and thought it was great, glad you mentioned how the weight loss shouldn’t cloud over the good performances, and come the Oscars if the do win then I hope it’s for the acting! I also found the realism of this film successful how like you said everything was natural and it didn’t try to overplay the touching relationships! :)

  3. Mark Walker

    Excellent review Mark. Just posted this myself. Totally agree on your point about how the physical transformations of MM and Leto should not detract from their superb performances.

  4. ruth

    Two of my fave blogging Marks give this film high marks, he..he.. sorry for the cheesy puns :D Great review here, these are golden days for McConaughey indeed, good for him! I like what you said here “To the film’s credit it never wallows in grief or cynically pulls the heartstrings …” that’s nice as they could easily go the over-manipulative route in making us feel what they want to feel.

  5. Victor De Leon

    Amazing job here with this review! My wife and I really enjoyed this film. The performances were stunning. The story was particularly poignant for my wife since she had a family member close to her pass away from the disease. The film was a bit of a downer for me but by the end the message was still important. Thanks for the review!

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