Dallas Buyers Club

February 22, 2014
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof in 'Dallas Buyers Club' 2013
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof in 'Dallas Buyers Club' 2013

It was startling enough to see Christian Bale porking up to play a middle-aged conman in American Hustle, but this seems like a piece of cake – or perhaps lots of cake and donuts – alongside Matthew McConaughey’s drastic transformation for Dallas Buyers Club. Anyone can pile on the kilos but it takes extraordinary discipline for a healthy actor to shed so much weight he becomes a walking skeleton.

In the character of Ron Woodroof, McConaughey has found one of his most challenging roles. Long gone are the days when he was type-cast as the tall, handsome guy in the latest rom com. From Magic Mike to The Paper Boy McConaughey has impersonated one wacko after another, and done it with considerable style. If he wins this year’s Oscar for best actor it will be well deserved, although he has stiff competition in Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of the Wolf of Wall Street.

The time is the early 1980s; the place, Dallas, Texas. Ron Woodroof is an aggressive, foul-mouthed cowboy who works as an electrician, and plays hard at the rodeo. His sexual activities are as disorderly as every other part of his life. Ron lives in a trailer and spends his days in a haze of booze and drugs. It is a matter of indifference whether he is jumping on a woman or an angry steer.

This agreeable routine comes to an end when Ron is diagnosed with AIDS. It’s a stigma because he and his friends always believed the disease was confined to homosexuals. The more immediate problem is that Ron is given only 30 days to live.

Dallas Buyers Club is the story of a man who refuses to accept a death sentence and looks for ways to cheat fate, even if it brings him into conflict with the doctors and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In an effort to get around the fatal legalities he turns his battle into a business that transforms his outlook on life.

It’s a combination of two classic plot-lines: the little man who rebels against the system, and the bad guy who emerges from a life-shattering crisis as a hero.

The film is another surprise from Canadian-born director, Jean-Marc Vallée, whose diverse cirriculum vitae includes a bio-pic of the young Queen Victoria, and the impressive Café de Flore (2011) – a subtle drama on the theme of reincarnation.

Much of the controversy about Dallas Buyers Club has centred on the degree of poetic licence taken by the director and his scriptwriters. It seems the real Ron Woodroof was not the loud-mouthed homophobe we meet in the film but a bisexual who never rode a steer in his life. His chief physician was a male doctor named Steven Pounders, not the lissom Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) who provides the arm’s-length love interest.

Ron’s partner in the buyers’ club – a transsexual hooker named Rayon – is entirely fictional. It is, however, a great role for Jared Leto, who throws himself into the part with an energy to rival McConaughey.

As the AIDS epidemic spread across the United States in the 1980s buyers clubs were established as a way of securing access to drugs and other medications that had not been approved by the FDA. Monthly fees were used to purchase medicines from abroad, to be distributed among club members.

The film is highly critical of the FDA, which insisted that every medication be subject to a rigorous process of testing and approval. These delays would prove deadly for many sufferers who were being ‘protected’ from unforseen side effects. It was a tragic absurdity that drove the real Ron Woodroof into a rage.

Dallas Buyers Club hints at conspiracies between the FDA, the doctors and the pharmaceutical industry, but the central issue is the lumbering nature of the bureaucracy and its inflexible adherence to the law, even as casualties mount. One can hardly fail to sympathise with Ron and his colleagues because almost everyone has experienced this form of bureaucratic obtuseness, although it is rarely a matter of life or death. Neither will anyone be surprised at suggestions that the big drug companies are more concerned with profits than with saving lives. The point has been made even more emphatically in films such as The Constant Gardener (2005).

As an exposition of a long, drawn-out battle between a maverick Robin Hood and an unfeeling establishment, the drama tends to wax and wane. If those moments of stasis are relatively brief it is due to the super-charged performances of McConaughey and Leto. It would have been easy for Dallas Buyers Club to descend into soap opera or grim docu-drama. Instead, it keeps us hanging on till the end, just as Ron hangs on to a bucking bull in the rodeo ring as a symbol of his determination to cling to life.


Dallas Buyers Club
USA, rated MA 15+
117 mins
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack; starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner,Denis O’Hare, Griffin Dunne

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 22 February, 2014.