Ron Woodroof’s powerful true story provides the influence for Dallas Buyers Club, a biographical drama directed by Jean Marc Vallee (C.R.A.Z.Y, The Young Victoria and Café De Flore) and written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. The story begins in 1985 as we are introduced to Woodroof (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey), an electrician, who spends his evenings as a rodeo cowboy and small time hustler. After receiving treatment for a work injury he learns that he has contracted HIV, and given just 30 days to live.
Ostracized by his friends and colleagues, Woodroof initially refuses to accept the news, but then begins to suffer alone and dedicate his precious time to researching treatments. Dr Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) informs Woodroof that they are currently trialing an antiviral called AZT, the only drug approved for testing on humans by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). After meeting a doctor, Vass (Griffin Dunne), in Mexico Woodroof starts up a business with the help of Rayon (Jared Leto), a HIV-positive transgender woman, in bringing Vass’ prescribed (but unapproved) treatments into the U.S.A for distribution in protest against the unproven AZT.
Vallee does a good job embedding us in Woodroof’s grubby world of sex, gambling and drugs and aligning us with the unpleasant world of this prejudiced scoundrel. I did not like Woodruff, but I admired how down-and-dirty the film gets in its early study of character. He hangs out in grungy bars with Texas hick buddies, runs dodgy rackets, and is aggressively homophobic. We aren’t meant to care much for Woodruff, but I felt like some of his characteristics were exaggerated to heighten his personal transformation in his quest to help fellow HIV sufferers.
The success of Dallas Buyers Club rests on McConaughey’s gaunt shoulders, and he completely disappears into this character. The enormous weight loss is an obvious sacrifice he has made, but he lives and breathes Woodroof’s desperation and fierce, unwavering determination. An unrecognizable Leto and a commonly plain Garner provide strong support, even if their characters don’t provide much insight into the impact of HIV on the homosexual community, nor the pharmaceutical conflicts at work in the late 80’s. McConaughey and Leto genuinely look ill as their health decreases, which is a credit to the make-up team.
But, I found the film to be erratically edited and very poorly paced. Just as Woodroof grows agitated about his pending death, Vallee effectively utilizes silence to powerfully convey his despair, but he seemed to grow agitated in the editing room trying to fit in too much and stifling any punch. While feeling significantly longer than just a shade under two hours, the second half meanders badly, falling into repetition and choosing to develop the relationship between Woodroof and Dr. Saks that doesn’t really go anywhere. It doesn’t stick with each arc or idea long enough to allow an audience the chance to become engrossed.
What is also somewhat troubling about this film is the angle with which it tackles HIV through the story of a straight man. While Woodroof believes he is god’s gift to women, he is disgusted that he has contracted a disease common to homosexual men. When his friends, who believe him to be a closeted gay man, make him an outcast he turns his frustrations (for a while) onto the gay community. Ultimately his arc takes a route that results in him changing his bigoted views on homosexuals, befriending and partnering with someone he would not long ago have been berating on the street. But, how are we to accept Woodroof? Why over-emphasize his prejudices? They are rubbed in an audience’s face to the point of making them uncomfortable. I keep reading different testimonies as to whom the real Woodroof was. McConaughey (who, I believe, read Woodroof’s diaries as part of his prep) claims that he was even crazier than the portrayal, while others claim that he was openly bisexual and not at all prejudiced as portrayed. I felt like Rayon too was an exaggerated clichéd portrayal of such an individual. It felt like a case of questioning: Who would be the most unlikely person Woodroof would find himself acquainted with? Lets create them.
Look, McConaughey is absolutely brilliant. I don’t have a bad word to say about his portrayal, only that the portrayal written for him is problematic. This film is only remotely memorable because of McConaughey’s commitment. The film itself, while telling a story worth telling, was surprisingly average, considering the potential of the story and Vallee’s lauded chops as a director. In addition to the very poor pacing, I felt like Dallas Buyers Club altogether lacked cinematic qualities (the drama flatlines, and any built is wrung of any effect) and succumbs to a pretty predictable outcome.
[rating=2] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.