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AIDS outlaw battles Big Pharma


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 scene is clipped and low-key; no soaring rhetoric or stirring speeches. This understatedness is both a strength and a weakness; Vallée taps but never pounds these emotional chords, and leaves the viewer somewhat detached rather than deeply engaged.

Much has been made of Leto's performance as Rayon, a trans woman and AIDS sufferer who becomes Ron's business partner and confidante. Rightly so — Leto inhabits every emotional and physical crag of Ray's slowly wasting frame. Her at times fiery friendship with Ron is central to Ron's discovery of the humanity that upends his prejudice; when Ron owns and bodily defends his friendship with Ray to one of his former friends during a heated encounter in a supermarket, it is an almost applause-worthy demonstration of personoal growth.

There is no doubt this is McConaughey's film. He steers his natural charisma into the best and worst of Ron's nature, winning sympathy for a character that is at times thoroughly unlikeable. For Ron, who'd seen the world in black and white, the events of Dallas Buyers Club are an education in the many other colours of the human spectrum. Notwithstanding a few gratingly dimple-faced flirtations with Garner's reserved but moral Dr Saks (an underwritten and unconvinving character), McConaughey nails it. Maybe I should rethink my own prejudices.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée, Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O'Hare



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Existing comments

Bravo - thanks Tim for an engaging and thought-provoking review. I have put this on my list of must-see films.

Barry G | 20 February 2014  

Gee, Tim! You didn't like McConaghey's joyous lunacy in 'Wolf of Wall Street'?

David B | 20 February 2014  

If you'd like to know how bad Big Pharma really is, read 'Bad Pharma' by Dr Ben Goldacre. He dissects this multi-billion dollar money-spinner with surgical precision. For a more personal account, 'Confessions of an Rx Drug Pusher' by Gwen Olsen, is also worth a read. (As for the revolving door between Big Pharma and the FDA . . . . .)

Gordon Rowland | 21 February 2014  

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