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AIDS outlaw battles Big Pharma

  • 20 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club (MA). Director: Jean-Marc Vallée. Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O'Hare, Griffin Dunne. 117 minutes

I've long had a prejudice against McConaughey, which has not been diminished by his much vaunted renaissance. Dallas Buyers Club has just about changed my mind. It's the first McConaughey performance I can recall that seems convincingly to get beyond the actor's indelible Texan smarminess — used, in most of his roles, either to charm or to repel — to something deeper, more dangerous and more human.

He plays Ron Woodroof, shyster, sparky, and motor-mouthed bigot, whose life takes a serious jolt when he learns that he has a significantly advanced case if AIDS. Given only 30 days to live, Ron is forced to face not only his mortality, but his prejudices; his rowdy, redneck mates associate the disease with homosexual activity, and they cut the equally homophobic Ron loose. He's scared, alone, and desperate for a cure.

He flirts with illegally obtained AZT (the antiretroviral drug still used today as part of effective treatment of HIV), which at the time the film is set (1985) is being rolled out in hasty and ethically dubious human trials. When his supply runs dry, and perplexed by the drug's toxic side effects, Ron heads to Mexico, where a disgraced American doctor, Dr Vass (Dunne), is treating patients using drugs unapproved by the FDA.

Ron finds Vass' alternative treatments effective, and begins smuggling the drugs back across the border. He opens a 'club' for AIDS sufferers — there are joining fees, but the drugs are free, so he can't be done for dealing. It's a money-making venture, but it also pits Ron against the Goliath of Big Pharma who, hastened by vested interests in the FDA, are pushing AZT with imperious zeal.

It's an ideological conflict, with the efficacy, extralegality and humaneness of Ron's approach on one side, and the profit-driven, bureaucratised approach of Big Pharma and the FDA on the other. O'Hare, who played a particularly nasty vampire in HBO's True Blood, here plays a more insidious villain, an ambitious doctor and willing Big Pharma puppet who becomes Ron's main rival on this battlefield.

This is a good story well told, although it does follow a formula that keeps it from ever being truly surprising. That being said, French director Vallée employs but does not labour Hollywood tropes. The death scene of a key character is not wrung for all its tissue-soaking worth. A climactic courtroom