Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Review first published by Film4.

Synopsis: Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria) directs this true-life story of a Texan redneck’s struggle against AIDS, America’s pharmaceutical industry, and his own individualist instincts.

Review: Dallas Buyers Club opens in 1986 with a double image of the thrills and dangers of bareback riding. As one man tries vainly to sit upright on the back of a bucking rodeo bull, another takes a pair of ‘whores’ from behind in the now-empty bull cage. The latter is Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a trailer-trash electrician, sex-and-drugs hedonist and homophobic-racist outlaw. Informed that he will die within 30 days of HIV-related complications, Woodroof decides to pursue an alternative, FDA-unapproved medical approach to staying on top of the disease. Still alive many months later, he forms an unlikely business partnership with the similarly AIDS-afflicted transgender woman Rayon (Jared Leto), and together they start smuggling in an effective regimen of illegal anti-viral drugs for an expanding club membership, all hoping not to be cast aside by big pharma, the FDA or death itself.

You can mark off the ways in which Dallas Buyers Club is designed to push the Academy’s buttons. It is based on a true story, depicting the struggle of a rebellious ‘little man’ against corporate corruption. Its principal characters are wasting away from a fatal disease – even if the many, many pounds that McConaughey and Leto impressively lost for their roles ensure that this is all far less decorous and sanitised than the typical Hollywood version of terminal illness. It shows prejudices overcome, bridges built, and hard-nosed capitalist tendencies tempered. And it perpetuates the all-American mythology of the cowboy, while also taking rugged individualism for a queer 80s spin, as Woodroof adapts to, and even profits from, a very twentieth-century brand of peril.

Yet if all this sounds rather calculated to lasso the odd Oscar, the quality and commitment of the two lead performances will prove hard for viewers to shake.

In A Nutshell: In its rough ride though pharmaceuticals provision in 80s America, this well-acted, Oscar-baiting AIDS drama mixes a queer cocktail of rugged individualism and anti-corporate collectivism.

Anton Bitel