As seems to happen every year, I start off with the good intention of reviewing all of the new films I see and then one thing and another gets in the way and before I know where I am, I’m way way behind. This year (Berlin Film Festival aside) I have seen 14 new films so far, yet I have only managed to review 6 of them. The problem of course with leaving a review too long and seeing a whole bunch of stuff in the meantime is that your memory of the film fades. However, in some ways it also enables you to have a better perspective on the film. What I call sugar rush films (see pretty much anything made by Quentin Tarantino since the first three films), from which you leave the film smiling but the more you think about them over time, the less impressive they seem, are easy to recognise from the perspective of a month or so than they were in the pub immediately afterwards.
I saw Dallas Buyers Club way back in February with Jackie South. It was before both Matthew McConaughey (in the starring role of Ron Woodruff) and Jared Leto (as Rayon), respectively won Oscars for best actor and best supporting actor, for their performances in the film.
The film has a fascinating (and apparently mostly true) story to tell of Ron Woodruff, a homophobic womanising good time Texan rodeo rider who is diagnosed HIV positive and given a matter of weeks to live at the height of the mid-80s AIDS epidemic. This was a time before retrovirals were available to manage the virus and in which the popular image of the disease was as a ‘gay plague’.
Woodruff tries and fails to get prescribed with AZT, then the subject of double blind trials, from a hospital doctor (played by Jenifer Garner) but refusing to die to order, sources supplies of an alternative unlicensed drug from a struck doctor in Mexico. Before long Woodruff is importing supplies of the drug and supplying them to fellow sufferers (largely from the gay and sex worker communities in Dallas) through a buyers club. This sells membership rather than the drugs, thereby taking an advantage of a then loophole in the law.
However, in order to reach his target market, he needs someone who will be trusted in these communities (no one in the gay and sex worker communities of Dallas, it is suggested, is going to trust a red neck cowboy like Woodruff – even though Woodruff with his tache and his big hat looks like he has stepped out of the Village People), leading to his odd couple friendship and business partnership with junkie transvestite prostitute, Rayon. The ruthlessness of this enterprise is shown in a simple scene where a teenager is refused any medication by Woodruff because he cannot afford the joining fee.
It is then a tale of entrepreneurship as much as one man’s survival against the system. The hospital and in particular the senior doctors, represented by Dr Sevard (Denis O’Hare) are shown in somewhat two dimensional style as rule bound bureaucrats dealing in death, even though in reality there is no fool proof way of trialing whether a drug is effective other than through double blind testing. The schematic division between the good compassionate doctor, Eve (the Jennifer Garner character) and Dr Sevard is one of the weaknesses of the films. The names alone tell you everything you need to know – the mother of humankind, Eve, who sinned with catastrophic effects (presumably by being a doctor in da bureaucracy) and the severely severe Sevard. Garner’s performance is perfunctionary but her part is so underwritten that she can hardly be blamed.
The film follows a fairly conventional arc – with the initial shock diagnosis, being followed by the period of success with the buyers’ club, and then the authorities seeking to shut the whole enterprise down. In the latter part of the film, dealing with Woodruff’s battle with the IRS and FDA , Dallas Buyers Club loses its way somewhat, becoming episodic and disjointed in order that, I suspect, the whole of Woodruff’s story can be told. This leads to scenes like a dramatic raid by the IRS where everything is taken without us ever finding out what happened as a result of the IRS investigation – we know it doesn’t close the buyers’ club down completely because Woodruff continues to trade.
This is a shame because the first two thirds of the film and in particular the growing if reluctant friendship between Woodruff and Rayon is brilliantly realised. It is through this relationship that Woodruff will come to challenge some of his own views, and contrary to many bad Oscar winning Hollywood issue films, it is never suggested that there is some Damascene moment, when the prejudice falls from his eyes. It is not clear whether it ever does completely, but Woodruff’s direct exposure through Rayon to the lifestyles of those in communities he had previously only denigrated as ‘faggots’ and ‘whores’ affects him more than any speechifying ever could.
As Peter Bradshaw noted in his Guardian review, this is a pretty conservative film in many ways – it rather ridiculously has McConaughey become sexually abstemious immediately he is diagnosed (even though he is in complete denial that he can be HIV positive).
It also trumpets free market entrepreneurialism, with the unregulated free market drug supply from Mexico being the life saver, while the regulated FDA machine is content to let people die. But this innate conservatism is not unusual in American cinema and can equally be read as the kind of triumph of the little guy against the corrupt or inept law enforcers style libertarianism, that is after all a staple theme of the Western.
Both McConaughey and Leto were worthy of their acclaim, even if rather too much was made of McConaughey’s dramatic weight loss for the film (check out Scorsese’s Raging Bull if you want to see real dedication to art through weight management in a film – with DeNiro playing both the super fit super toned abbed up and bloated and fat Jake La Motta in one film, without any padding). It is his performance as the charming, but ruthlessly determined to live, Woodruff that is worthy of the admiration. Leto matches him all the way as the flirtatious and hedonistic Rayon, who has an appointment with death as much as Woodruff has an appointment with life.
And it is ultimately those two superb performances that, I think, are responsible for elevating what might otherwise have been a pretty conventional factually based Academy pleasing issue/personal journey film (see Philadelphia, Erin Brockovich etc) into something altogether more impressive.