Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2014)

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Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenwriter: Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts, Michael O’Neill, Denis O’Hare & Griffin Dunne
Runtime: 117 min // Certificate: 15


Set against the backdrop of the eighties HIV/Aids crisis that gripped much of the Western World, Dallas Buyers Club is loosely based on the true tale of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a man who on being given just a month to live made it his mission in life to get access to decent medication – medication which was “unauthorized” in America – and helped to found a drug club so that his fellow sufferers were able to access better treatment too… though only if they could pay. The film presents Woodroof as a hedonistic homophobe; he believes – as many did / do – that HIV/Aids is a “faggot” disease that he doesn’t deserve to have. He starts off as the type of bloke who washes down his pills with cocaine, beer and a smoke, all while hating on the people who can help him most. However, his outlook and approach soon change when he meets fellow HIV/Aids victim Rayon (Leto), a transgender woman – annoyingly referred to as he/him throughout the film, though I think (hope) that is just to mirror the decade in which it is set – who helps him to set up the medicine club.

Ok, so I cannot fault McConaughey or Leto one little bit. Let me just get that out of the way now, because it’s important to stress just how brilliant the two of them are. The “McConaissance” rumbles on as it has for past three years (and it’s showing no sign of slowing down any time soon) while Leto proves once again that he’s a wonderful actor, albeit one who is still – despite his incredible turns in films like Requiem for a Dream and Mr Nobody – much too easily and unfairly dismissed. The two of them bring a crushing realism and sincerity to the film that elevates it far above simple “Oscar bait” fodder, and though there’s clearly a certain level of award-hunting going on, such great performances deserve all the recognition we can give them quite frankly.

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The problem, then, is that it’s somewhat infuriating to watch them both give what might well be the performances of their careers in a film that, though far from awful, is practically drowning in a near unpalatable, melodramatic bog. No matter the nuance that drives Vallée’s thoughtful direction or the sheer intensity behind each performance, Dallas Buyers Club is a film that is done a real disservice by a combination of aimlessness and ultimately contrived emotion. It is a well put together piece of cinema, no doubt about it, but it lacks the emotional heft that such a simultaneously fascinating and harrowing story demands and, as such, it feels incomplete and unfocussed. Where there is drama it feels over-written, yet when the film tries to rein itself in it starts to go off the rails completely. It just can’t win!

The fault for all of this rests on the shoulders of the film’s writers, both of whom take a humorous but tragic tale of survival and rebellion and do their utmost to make it seem trite, inconsequential and just a little bit dull. The characters are well written – though their personalities are more a consequence of performance than writing – and I don’t dispute the film’s ability to make you feel sympathetic towards a man who, at least at the start, is a hateful bigot, but when the focus shifts away from the characters to actual plot details, such as the fight against the disease and the drug smuggling, it doesn’t work anywhere near as well as it should. Like a film of two halves, Dallas Buyers Club works as a character study yet fails to come together as an actual story. The latter half in particular feels like little more than a sequence of non-events, thrown together to try and drag emotion out of the audience in spite of the peculiar disconnect between the viewer and the drama.

The ultimate issue here is one of consistency. When the film explores Woodroof, his relationship with Rayon and how his illness changes him it’s very engaging. However, when it comes to plot advancement it all feels like it’s on very shaky ground. It doesn’t say much in the film’s favour that barely a few hours after it finished I couldn’t really remember much of what I’d seen. The drama and the tragedy both felt distant, which had the effect of making me feel excluded from what was occurring, while the numerous threads that hold the plot in place didn’t come together in any coherent way. The film seems so focussed on getting to the tragedy that simple things are left behind. As I’ve said, I don’t think it’s a bad film and it’s probably one that demands a rewatch, but it constantly felt like something was missing, something that I haven’t quite put my finger on yet.

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There is, however, a lot of decent stuff going on and though the structure of the narrative feels disorganised, some of the ideas that the film explores are interesting. Though the film’s primary concern is with how the fear of HIV/Aids led to ignorance and discrimination, I felt that the exploration of the conflict between the pharmaceutical companies and the medical professionals was a much more fascinating thread. Woodroof’s battle with these companies is presented as a moral one, and the film raises some thought-provoking questions about conflicts of interest and medical testing. The problem is that when it gets into the meat of the issues, it feels simultaneously shallow and convoluted.

Nevertheless, despite my reservations I do think that Dallas Buyers Club is a good film. Without its central performances it wouldn’t be up to much at all but it’s still a decent watch, all things considered. McConaughey and Leto dazzle and bring harsh realism to every scene they’re in, often in spite of the dialogue they’re delivering. Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn and Dennis O’Hare provide excellent supporting performances, while the manner in which the film juggles tragedy, drama and dark comedy is pretty refreshing. Woodroof is a complex character, as is Rayon, and the two of them are the foundation upon which this entire film is built; they’re funny and endearing to watch, though you know from the start that their story will end in tragedy. Alas, the two main performances – heck, even the two main characters – feel somewhat wasted in a film that often feels confused about what it wants to be.

McConaughey deserves the Academy Award and Leto deserved a nomination, though I’m not sure he quite deserves to win. Dallas Buyers Club as a film, however, isn’t quite up to scratch. I think I’m disappointed more than anything, as I was expecting great things which ultimately weren’t forthcoming. Don’t get me wrong; it’s by no means a poor film but it’s far from Oscar-worthy. Then again, if Crash can win, anything can…