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
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

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.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker