Film review: DALLAS BUYERS’ CLUB, from Built For Speed

On the surface Dallas Buyers Club seems like a suspiciously familiar Oscar-friendly story as it depicts a flawed man’s redemption through a battle with terminal disease.  This film strikes powerful emotional chords, though, with its unflinching depiction of AIDS patient Ron Woodruff’s (Matthew McConaughey) confrontation not only with the disease but also his and society’s prejudices.

Set in 1985, the film introduces Woodruff as a card-carrying misogynist and homophobe who is shocked to discover he has contracted HIV from a prostitute. Like so many people in the mid-1980’s, Woodruff believes that only homosexual men and intravenous drug users can be afflicted by HIV.  Told his illness has progressed to full blown AIDS and he has only 30 days to live, Ron responds with denial and foolish bravado – snorting coke and guzzling whiskey – before resorting to hostility and violence then lapsing into depression.  A surprisingly effective last resort treatment from a defrocked physician (Griffin Dunne) in Mexico, however, provides Ron with hope for a longer life.   The treatment also gives Ron the inspiration for a lucrative business selling drugs not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to desperate AIDS patients.  Operating out of a seedy Dallas motel, Ron’s drug dealing operation, which he runs with cross-dressing, Marc Bolan-obsessed fellow patient, Rayon (Jared Leto), becomes known as the Dallas Buyers Club.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s style is lean and efficient style like Clint Eastwood’s as he creates an impressively rugged and hostile vision of Texas with its oil fields and violent red neck bars. Thankfully, the film recognises that Ron will always be a product of this environment and even though he develops empathy for the people who, like him, suffer from both an illness and damning prejudice, he’s never seen as a born again saint or Robin Hood. He still spouts homophobic slurs and demands a large subscription fee from the desperate patients before handing out the drugs. 

The film marks possibly the largest leap yet for McConaughey away from his laconic, shirtless party boy image.  Volatile and alarmingly gaunt, he’s almost unrecognisable as the actor who casually paraded a suntan and a six-pack in Fool’s Gold and Sahara. Although he produces some of the old southern swagger when he tries to seduce sympathetic doctor Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), for the most, he delivers an emotional and confronting  performance.  Jared Leto is equally good as the drug-addicted Rayon; he potently mixes vulnerability, wit and self-destructiveness in a role that could have easily become a cross-dressing cliché.  Jennifer Garner reminds us what an affecting performer she can be as she brings both strength and sensitivity to the role of a professional forced to question the ethics of the world to which she has committed herself.

This film is essentially about Ron’s painful redemption although at one point, as Ron flits around the globe trying to acquire untested drugs from every bent doctor he can find, it looks as if it might turn into a crime caper movie.  Fortunately, director Vallée quickly refocuses the film on Ron and his clients’ sad but inspiring plight.

While the film’s view of the people afflicted by AIDs is unerringly powerful, moving and realistic, its depiction of the medical bureaucracy is questionable.  The film raises an extremely vexing ethical issue of whether it is acceptable to circumvent the scientific testing protocols and allow terminally ill patients access to new, untested and unapproved medication. The film is transparently opposed to the medical bureaucracy and depicts the system’s adherents as callous stuffed shirts operating at the will of big pharma. While there may be reason to question the relationship between corporations and regulatory authorities, the way in which that relationship is represented here at times seems simplistic and unfair to medical professionals who must employ legitimate and rigorous research methods before releasing potentially harmful drugs on the population.

Questionable portrayals of medical ethics and the scientific method aside this is still a taught, compelling and superbly acted human drama.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Drama.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): Jean-Marc Vallée.

Release date: 13th Feb 2013

Running time: 117 mins.


Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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