Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

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DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a rewarding film about mortality, against-the-odds achievement, and a brutal critique of big business pharmaceuticals, but it becomes a really great film when it gets into analysing prejudice (for all the good it does).

In the mid-1980s, charming Texan scoundrel Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is brought crashing to earth when he is diagnosed with AIDS. He friends instantly disown him because of the sexuality associations of the disease, and he ends up at loggerheads with a medical system that is systematically failing patients in dire need. With the help of transsexual fellow AIDS sufferer Rayon (Jared Leto) and under the watchful gaze of cautious MD Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), Ron begins a campaign of smuggling and selling life-saving drugs from abroad.

I absolutely loved Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, and was convinced he should have taken home the top award at the Academy Awards, but at that point I had yet to see Dallas Buyers Club, and honestly, Matthew McConaughey is something else entirely. He breaks his very body and his soul down to nothing in order to build it back up again in his portrayal of Ron Woodroof. Jared Leto also deserves the recognition he’s received for Ron’s transexual business partner Reyon – equal parts catty, outer confidence and inner vulnerability. I was equally impressed by Jennifer Garner playing Dr Eve, her unshakeable sense of right and wrong and her quite justifiable reasons for caution before releasing new drugs to the public essentially alleviating blame from medical professionals and putting it squarely back in Big Pharmaceutical’s court. She embodies some of the central dilemmas of the film – do you delay giving out potentially life-saving medication if it hasn’t been properly tested? Do you let terminally ill people take the risk for their own lives? Kevin Rankin is also strong as T.J, Ron’s former friend who turns against him after his diagnosis due to his deep-rooted homophobia and ignorance. He strikes just the right balance between making T.J detestable, but not cartoonily so, and equally pitiable.

I’m one step removed from the impact of the film – I wasn’t alive during the AIDS crisis, and lack those vivid memories, but I can still connect with the emotional turmoil of the period that the film extremely effectively evokes. I’m lucky to have grown up in a time where we know a lot more about the HIV virus, and to live in a part of the world that isn’t paralysed by paranoia, and generally speaking, the prejudice against, and misconceptions about, the sufferers have lessened considerably.

The film’s release in 2013 might seem a little odd. Though HIV/AIDS is still a major problem in parts of the world, research into the disease and ways to manage it is ongoing, and the misconceptions about it are not as prevalent today as they were 30 years ago. While AIDS might not be as much of a hot topic for audiences today, the pharmaceutical industry seems to have changed very little over three decades, arguably still just as morally bereft as it is depicted in the 80s-set Dallas Buyers Club. The big-screen depiction of Ron Woodroof’s story has stumbled a number of times since Craig Borten wrote the first draft of his screenplay following interviews with Woodroof shortly before his death in the early 90s. Over two decades Woody Harrelson, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling have, at various points been attached to, or strongly connected with, the lead role. While the film might have had more of an impact, provoked more debate, if it had been released in the 1990s as originally planned, the Capra-esque structure of the story – a charming all-American boy fights the evils of big business – is timeless, and there is still much audiences can discuss.

The film doesn’t shy away from depicting, quite explicitly, the ravages this horrible disease causes the human body. Aside from McConaughey’s committed, gaunt visage, Leto’s Reyon goes through hell towards the end as well, as her body inevitably gives in to the relentless immune system assault. The film also, pleasingly, doesn’t try and morally whitewash Ron as a character, in fact, for much of the runtime, he’s a bit of a bastard. He’s self-obsessed and self-serving, just as homophobic as his former friends who shunned him because of his condition, and arguably just as profiteering as the pharmaceuticals companies he is at war against. It is only through his struggles, and through his later campaigning, that he becomes a likable, empathetic person. He goes on a journey, changing noticeably in response to his situation, which is a must for a compelling character arc.

The plot at points plays it pretty fast and loose for the sake of fluidity and pacing, but I would have still liked to see a better explanation of Ron gaining his connections abroad that allowed him to form his smuggling/morally justifiable drug dealing ring. The way the film presents it, Ron turns up in another country, has a quick chat, “wink wink, nudge nudge” and he’s sorted. I’ve no idea what went on in the montage when he visits Japan, he just seems to strut through the airport, have a quick meeting, then he’s on his way out again, but this is getting picky.

Dallas Buyers Club explores a remarkable life in a balanced, engaging way, and a great cast performing a well-worth-the-wait script make it a compelling and emotional watch overall. The only really valid criticisms relate to streamlining a story in adaptation, and though the issues the film tackles have been overshadowed by more contemporary ones, the venom the film holds for big business practices and prejudice of all sorts, is just as relevant and hard-hitting as ever. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Spike Jonze, Rian Johnson and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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