The last of the Oscar contenders to be released in the UK turns out to be one of the strongest. Sometimes the circumstances behind the making of a film shine through on the screen, and this story, with its lengthy birth, tiny budget and rushed schedule is a perfect example. It gives the film an urgency, a roughness and a pace that might not have been the case with a bigger budget, and it also ensure extremely committed performances from all concerned – they are doing it for love, not money.
A seemingly reborn McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a trailer trash rodeo bull rider and electrician working hard and playing harder in Dallas in 1985. He is a typical redneck – homophobic, mildly racist and regards all women as whores – and puts his loss of balance and weight down to his drug use. However when he ends up in hospital after a work accident, he is informed by a doctor he has HIV and has 30 days to live.
Baffled by how he has a “faggot” disease he begins to research it, which leads to an experiment with AZT, which he has to obtain illegally as it is not legally available in the US. The more he researches his disease, the more he realises that the drug companies are forcing certain “cures” onto the market simply to make money, and finds a doctor in Mexico whose treatments, involving minerals, vitamins and protein, appear to be working.
Ron begins to smuggle the “drugs” from Mexico into the US, and realises he can help people by getting them the medication. Who needs them most? The gay community, so he befriends his former hospital neighbour, the transgendered Rayon (Jared Leto), and they form a very unlikely business partnership.
Ron also realises he needs help from the inside, so also befriends doctor Eve (Jennifer Garner), who is becoming increasingly uneasy about the drugs industry and their hold over the nation’s health. The three of them form the Dallas Buyers Club, but will the might of the pharmaceutical industry let the minnows get away with their alternative cures? Especially since they appear to be working?
The remarkable thing about the story is how these relationships, while crucial, are never allowed to get sentimental or cloying. Ron is clearly attracted to Eve but their bond is far deeper than merely sexual, and a dinner date is perfectly pitched. Equally admirable is Ron’s relationship with Ray, the world’s most unlikely partnership – Ron is an enlightened man by this stage but still a straight-talking cowboy, while Ray is a transvestite obsessed with dresses, lipstick and Marc Bolan. It can only end badly – as can the whole film – but it is perfectly pitched and has a killer theme, these people – gay, straight or bisexual – are all dying and they are all terrified.
Visually the film also gets it spot-on – it’s a grubby, sweaty setting for a dark story, but there are a couple of visual flourishes. One, when Ron is investigating the use of antibiotic caterpillar secretions, ends with his walking into a store room filed with thousands of moths, which he lets cover his skinny body. Another is when he has an episode on a crossroads, when he simply loses his sight and hearing and staggers around in a dizzying display of camerawork.
The performances here are simply superb. McConaughey used to act from A to B, here he has to go from A to Z, from a brutal, nasty redneck to a man who understands what it means to be alive and who will do anything to take on the big guns. He is matched by Garner who has never been better than as the confused doctor, while Leto as the tragic Ray tips towards a cliché.
The only weaknesses are that the politics gets very complicated – as politics tends to – and the courtroom scene near the end lacks emotional punch. It’s a long film, and while the journey is always interesting it does get a little bogged down in detail. Ron’s trips to Japan, Amsterdam and Israel to get hold of new drugs take up a lot of screen time and could have been dealt with in a line in the script, and they slow the momentum down.
Overall verdict: Power-packed emotional drama with killer performances and a visual style that matches its desperate subject matter perfectly. Strong stuff which will stay with you for a long time.
Reviewer: Mike Martin