Dallas Buyers Club, film review: 'A rousing crowd-pleaser'

5.00

A contradictory film that is uplifting despite dealing with HIV and death

Dallas Buyers Club is a truly contradictory affair: a rousing crowd-pleaser dealing with the most downbeat subject imaginable – a man contracting HIV and slowly dying of an Aids-related condition.

Summed up like that, it sounds impossibly grim. What makes the film so special is its sense of defiance and its scabrous humour. The main characters here simply don’t accept their role as victims, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) least of all.

Like other former juvenile leads who’ve appeared in too many romantic comedies, McConaughey has been consistently underestimated as an actor. Here, he gives an astonishing performance that combines sleaziness and venality with grace and pathos.

The director Jean-Marc Vallée, previously best known to British audiences for the pallid, Julian Fellowes-scripted costume drama The Young Victoria (2009), brings a grittiness and morbid humour to the storytelling here that, early on, evokes memories of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces.

When we first encounter McConaughey’s Ron, he is having frenzied, unprotected sex in a darkened stall at a Texas rodeo. The scene is shot in a furtive, voyeuristic way. From the corner of his eye, he notices a sad-faced rodeo clown – a figure we see again and who seems to have been included as a harbinger of troubles ahead.

Moments later, Ron is fleeing angry cowboys he seems to have fleeced. It’s 1985. With his rakishly lean frame and moustache, Ron may look like a member of camp disco group Village People but he is rampantly homophobic. “Rock Hudson was a cocksucker!” he exclaims early on when he learns of Hudson’s homosexuality. He likes women, beer, drugs and pornography. His language is colourful but obscene. “That shit is purer than a preacher’s daughter’s p***y,” is how he describes the cocaine he is trying to sell to a friend.

 

Ron is an electrician who lives in a trailer park. When he first learns of his HIV diagnosis and is given 30 days to get his affairs in order, he reacts with utter astonishment. “I ain’t no faggot,” he roars at the doctor, telling him his blood must have been mixed up with some “daisy puller’s”.

Any prospect of a dignified death looks remote. His friends are as homophobic as he is – and quickly begin to shun him. He doesn’t have much money but is desperate to get hold of AZT, the only drug he thinks can help him. The screenplay, by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, reverses the trajectory of the typical terminal illness film. Its darkest and most upsetting moments come early on, when Ron is struggling and failing to come to terms with his condition.

There are some overlaps with the excellent recent documentary How to Survive a Plague, which showed how, during the early days of the Aids epidemic, gay and lesbian activists stood up to politicians and pharmaceutical companies. Ron becomes the unlikely leader in a battle with the medical establishment, here represented by the FDA – the Food and Drug Administration. He reads up on the science and challenges the received medical establishment wisdom about AZT, a drug he soon decides is toxic.

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey as Rayon and Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey as Rayon and Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club can hardly be described as a comedy but the idea of a group of eccentric small-timers taking on the big, bad bureaucrats has a comic resonance. It was a starting point for many of the best Ealing films. Ron and his business partner, the HIV-positive Rayon (Jared Leto), make a memorable odd couple. One is a macho Texas redneck and the other is a Marc Bolan-obsessed transgender woman.

The tone is beautifully struck. The film- makers neither trivialise the plight of the HIV-positive protagonists in pursuit of easy laughs but nor do they slip into mawkishness or heavy-handed solemnity. On one level, this is a story about good old American entrepreneurialism. Ron and Rayon are hustlers who understand market forces. They realise that they can supply legal drugs and vitamin supplements that HIV sufferers need and want. By setting up a club, they avoid having to sell on the streets.

Leto is a revelation as Rayon, a character who is a strange mess of contradictions: self-reliant and yet intensely vulnerable, full of common sense and yet self-destructive. Vallée doesn’t skimp from Rayon looking utterly ravaged by illness and drug abuse, her skin blotchy and her eyes heavy. At the same time, she also has her diva-like moments when, with her wig, rouge and high cheek bones, she looks as if she is a glamour queen on leave from a Factory-set Andy Warhol film.

The doctors and FDA officials are demonised here in a way that seems a little simple-minded. They’re portrayed as being vindictive and petty when they have no particular reason to be so. The portrayal of the relationship between Ron and the kind-hearted doctor Eve (engagingly played by Jennifer Garner) is contrived and goes nowhere in particular. It’s as if the film-makers are desperate to include a conventional romantic sub-plot but don’t quite know how to do it.

Ron is HIV positive and his libido is on the wane as the result. His lothario days are largely behind him. Even so, as played by McConaughey, his swagger never quite leaves him. It’s a testament to the actor’s charisma that Ron seems more heroic than absurd, even when he is wandering around town with a drip attached to his arm or walking down a hospital corridor wearing a cowboy hat but no underwear.

Dallas Buyers Club is based on a true story. It’s impossible to overlook the fact that this is a film deals with illness and imminent death. At the same time, it’s thoroughly uplifting to watch in the way of the best tales about underdogs fighting back against overwhelming odds.

Read more:
Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club: Why can't we cast trans people in trans roles?
Matthew McConaughey ate spoonful of pudding a day to lose weight for Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey delivers impassioned speech at SAG Awards
Oscar nominations 2014: Full list of nominees
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence