Sunday 23 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club (2014) - Jean-Marc Vallée

If The Wolf Of Wall Street was an amusing take on glamourising drug abuse, Dallas Buyers Club is its antithesis.  A similarly biographical film but a far more human story, it stars Matthew McConaughey as the misogynistic Ron Woodroof whose hedonistic lifestyle of drugs, alcohol and prostitutes catches up to him when he is diagnosed with Aids.

Ron is given thirty days to live, an ultimatum he initially scoffs at with knee-jerk machismo.  Yet he's not a man to give up easily, going to extreme measures in his fight for survival.  Vallée's vision of 1980s Dallas is bleakly realistic - in total contrast to Scorcese's high-tempo Wall Street - with cinematography that literally drains the colour from Ron's world and only slight hints of diegetic music.  It's a world full of all the homophobic, rodeo cowboys you might expect.  Few are as prejudice as Ron himself, but once diagnosed he is shunned by his friends who immediately label him a "fag".  One fateful stint in hospital forces him to face up to his homophobic views when he meets the transgender Rayon (Jared Leto); together they strike up an unlikely friendship as business partners selling unapproved pharmaceuticals from Mexico to members of their 'Dallas Buyers Club' through a loophole in the law.  This war against the American healthcare system forms the backbone of the narrative, a constant struggle between human testing and the lives of AIDs victims who seem to be far more knowledgable on their own health than both the doctors and the FDA.

At the heart of the film though is the relationship between Ron and Rayon, owing to the stunning performances from the two actors.  McConaughey, is proving himself to be a talented actor far beyond the rom-coms he's best known for.  In a career-best performance, he has totally transformed for this role into the gaunt and skeletal Ron.  Virulent and hostile, he is a toxic cocktail of masculinity - a foul-mouthed, skinny redneck for whom 'Aids' is a bi-word for 'homo'.  Yet in one scene later on, he sobs in his car uncontrollably at the side of the road.  The character's journey may seem hackneyed and overtly Hollywood, but McConaughey's performance is truly convincing.

With Rayon, Vallée balances the tragic and comic elements of the narrative, with plenty of amusing one-liners that prove the character is tougher than you might expect beneath the colourful, trashy make-up and tarty dresses.  Leto has similarly transformed in a sincere and touching performance.  Both characters could have become clichéd stereotypes, but under the verité gaze of Vallée's camera, the results are incredibly honest.  By comparison, Jennifer Garner's one-note Dr Eve Saks doesn't quite match the same level of characterisation.

Dallas Buyers Club is the most important Aids related film since 1993's Philadelphia.  12 Years A Slave may sweep the boards at this year's Academy Awards, but Vallée's film is utterly deserving of its Oscar recognition.