By Simon Miraudo
February 12, 2014
Matthew McConaughey is an Academy Award nominated person. This is the bizarre reality we now inhabit, and we can thank Dallas Buyers Club for this temporal-shifting mind-melt. His career revitalisation came in 2011, after he turned down a massive pay check for the sure-to-be-godawful Magnum P.I. movie, and instead appeared in a fleet of well-regarded indie films, such as Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Bernie, and Mud. Yet, it’s Dallas that got him the Oscar nod. He dropped 18 kilos to play HIV-infected cowboy Ron Woodroof, and gained industry respect equalling a couple of De Niro’s and a Keitel. Good on him. Still, it feels like a shame that his coronation should come on the heels of this particular picture: an often-cheesy issue flick, riddled with clichés, and labouring under some embarrassing excuses for human dialogue. The McConaissance has been sealed with the least interesting of his latter day efforts.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack sell the real-life Woodroof as a sex-mad homophobe who spent the ’80s swindling his working class pals at rodeos and enjoying unprotected encounters with the many undiscriminating women of Texas. When Doctors Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Saks (Jennifer Garner) give him a grave HIV diagnosis, he reacts by bringing home a couple of hookers and ingesting enough cocaine to incapacitate a small bull. It takes about a week for the emaciated, emotionally-withered Woodroof to realise the clock may indeed be ticking, and he makes an impassioned case to the sympathetic Eve Saks to get him on an experimental trial of new drug AZT. When he’s turned down, Woodroof starts buying it on the sly from a hospital employee, before discovering an even more effective cocktail in Mexico. After realising how much money there is to be made in the peddling of AIDS medication, he starts importing medicine from across the border, posing as a priest, a doctor, anything really that’ll keep the DEA from confiscating his unapproved wares. To further immunise himself from potential prosecution, he forms ‘the Dallas Buyers Club,’ where patients pay a membership fee and receive the meds, technically, free of charge.
The opening scene shows Woodroof having sex with two women in a bull’s pen while watching a man almost-fatally fall off a bucking bronco. That’s not even the most blatant and on-the-nose visual metaphor deployed here. Dallas asserts our hero’s heterosexuality early and often, lest anyone get the wrong idea. The second sequence involves Woodroof openly mocking closeted gay actor Rock Hudson for his sexual proclivities. Clearly Vallée fell in love with the ironic idea of a homophobe contracting HIV that he felt the need to keep spelling out these parallels. (I’m not sure, however, why there are so many references to rodeo clowns: if it was meant to be some kind of earnest Pagliacci allusion, I will be very annoyed. )
Vallée, maybe unforgivably, overlooks the many, many gay characters on the fringes of this tale in favour of a ferociously-straight one, though it’s hard to begrudge him for glomming on to what is undeniably an unusual, cinematic, and specifically commercial scenario from the AIDS epidemic era. That said, those close to Woodroof assert he was a) bisexual, b) not a homophobe, and c) never rode a bull in his life, suggesting the filmmakers – specifically the screenwriters who spent 20 years trying to get the damn thing made – went a little too far to make this all about ‘the crazy, lady-loving cowboy who got AIDS and became a better man because of it.’
McConaughey’s fine performance elevates the movie above its sins; his shrunken, sunken figure is a grotesque sight to behold, and an interesting juxtaposition with his irrepressibly charismatic personality. Also, making up for the lack of a rich LGBT cast is Jared Leto‘s Rayon, a transgender woman who becomes Ron’s unlikely confidant and co-conspirator (a composite of Ron’s friends from that time). Leto, unfortunately burdened with the worst lines and the most cloyingly tragic arc, is nonetheless able to make Rayon a breezy beauty who betters the film with her presence.
Dallas Buyers Club is so proud of and impressed with itself that it casts a blind eye over the issues that matter. Woodroof, despite his scoundrel-like ways, played an important part in the lives of many. By capitalising on this uniquely “straight” AIDS story, and repurposing Ron’s tale into an energetically-edited caper flick – prioritising the funny outfits and various guises he used to smuggle drugs out of Mexico – Vallée forgets the human toll. So, yes, McConaughey’s very good and Leto’s good and Jennifer Garner is her usual capable self, but Dallas Buyers Club is – forgive the pun – a total lightweight. It’s a testament to McConaughey’s newly-resuscitated career that we can call this a minor entry in his increasingly impressive – and, okay, forgive this pun too – body of work.
Dallas Buyers Club arrives in Australian cinemas February 14, 2014.