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Tuesday 11 April 2017

Review: The Dallas Buyers' Club

Posted in: Movies
By Jay Bennie - 19th February 2014

The Dallas Buyer's Club

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner

At Academy Theatres

February 18th screening, An Auckland Pride Festrial 2014 event

Jared Leto as Rayon and Matthew McConaughey as Woodroof
The Dallas Buyers' Club is based on a true story set in a time of impending death and daily desperation.

HIV hit Dallas, Texas, in much the same way as most other areas of the western world, including New Zealand. Gays and intravenous drug users began dying horrible deaths, it was eventually tracked down to a transmissible virus and, in the mid-1980s when this movie is set, there was no cure.

The fear turned into victimisation and those getting unwell were trapped in a no-man's land between their willingness to try anything to stave off illness and death and the health system's slow progress and bureaurcratic processes.

Ron Woodroof was a real person who unexpectedly grew into this vacuum. As portrayed in the movie he's a hard-drinking, gambling, whoring, rodeo hustling, drug dealing, homophobic redneck whose incessant tomcatting has seen him infected with the 'faggot disease.' Initially refusing to believe his increasingly failing health can be due to HIV he goes through the various stages of denial, acceptance, bargaining, the whole bit. He runs afoul of the conservative medical types who are playing by the slow and steady 'trial the drugs for another two years then we might be able to save you, except that we've just told you you're unlikely to live more than a month' playbook.

He is drawn to a woman doctor who increasingly comes to understand the desperation of patients who know there may be hope in some emerging but controversial drugs but are denied access to them.

Woodroof eventually gets over his virulent homo-hating and, after his friends and workmates on the oilfields turn on him, he teams up with a similarly ill and isolated transwoman, Rayon. With his flair for buying and selling illegal substances and her connections the two are soon in business, sourcing HIV meds from dubious sources and hocking them, at a price, to desperate people, all the time dodging the health, law enforcement and customs authorities.

I won't spill the beans on the rest of the plot, suffice to say there are both good and sad outcomes and no one gets to live happily ever after.

Burdened down with social comment, historical fact and trying to make a sympathetic character out of a guy who is dubious at the very least, the plot of this movie staggers along a bit, the inserting of drug names and historical quotes are often clunky and too many lines scream 'historical accuracy moment.'

But the Dallas Buyers club still manages to fly as a fascinating and heart-wrenching movie and as an evocation of what those who died in the early, hopeless, days of the HIV epidemic lived through.

This is due to two performances by two remarkably gifted actors. Matthew McConaughey is remarkable as Woodroof. Vicious, calous, self-obsessed and cunning as a rat. Fighting against the tendency of the script to simplify his character into a 'bad boy makes good and eventually redeems himself' Americana-friendly type, he instead softens only slightly, allowing us to build only a grudging understanding of the unattractive Woodroof, making the brief moments when he rises above his nature all the more compelling and almost - but not quite - heartwarming. Thank goodness McConaughey got the role and not Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise or someone with more star-power baggage.

Jennifer Garner tries and fails to breathe some humanity into a superfluous female doctor character who seems to have been inserted so middle America can distract themselves wondering if she'll fall for Woodroof's charms - and him for hers - and not start sneering at the unlikely possibility of Woodroof and Rayon becoming closer than close.

For my money the heart of the film is Rayon, the drug-addicted, HIV-infected trans woman who stands up to Woodroof like no one has done before but eventually falls victim to her own frailties. She is magnificently, touchingly played by Jared Leto. Vulnerable, hardened, yearning, frail and barely able to hold her tattered and marginalised life together, she finds in the viciously homophobic Woodroof the only lifeline she's likely to get.

As she starts to lose her grip last night's preview audience went from quiet and absorbed to deathly quiet and unblinking. Everyone in the theatre seemed to be aching for her, willing her to pull back from the brink but knowing that the virus is sapping whatever remnants of strengths and willpower she has left. Both McConaughey and Leto won Baftas for The Dallas Buyers' Club and are now up for Academy Awards. They both deserve the Oscar but if it is to be only one of them my fingers and toes are crossed for Leto.

The plot and, especially, some of the scripting of lesser roles may be of the paint by numbers style but these two performances are stunning and irresistible and make this a movie totally worth seeing. Take a hanky.

- Jay Bennie

Jay Bennie - 19th February 2014

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