VOD film review: Dallas Buyers Club
Simon Kinnear | On 05, Jun 2014
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto
Watch Dallas Buyers Club online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Matthew McConaughey is on a dinner date with Jennifer Garner, turning on the charm. Briefly, you might recall the last time this two shared the screen: maligned rom-com Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past. The context here is very different. McConaughey is AIDS victim-turned-heroic pill pusher Ron Woodroof; Garner is his doctor. Suddenly, McConaughey drops the playboy act, the sadness wells up and he says, with a heartfelt note of tender humility: “Thanks for coming.” The comment might well have been directed towards us viewers.
Because this isn’t Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past, and McConaughey has buried his history of underachievement. Indeed, it’s only 2014, and yet already McConaughey has laid claim to be the finest screen performer we’ll see this decade. If anybody had told you that five years ago, you’d have laughed in their faces. Having ditched the rom-com roles, the Texan star has rediscovered the mojo that first brought him acclaim, and delivered a genuinely perfect run of movies to rival Humphrey Bogart in the 1940s or Jack Nicholson in the 1970s.
By dint of bagging him an Oscar, Dallas Buyers Club is set to be the crowning glory of the McConaughaissance, but don’t be put off by that. The film, and its central performance, deserve the acclaim.
On paper, Jean-Marc Vallée’s biopic is probably the most Academy-friendly of this year’s awards season contenders, which is usually a sign of the weakest film. Yet Dallas Buyers Club triumphs on precisely those qualities and can proudly share the stage alongside the finest Oscar hoggers in recent memory.
The story of Woodroof, a cowboy who became HIV positive during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, plays like a perfect storm of true life tales. Gaunt to be point of becoming skeletal, the ravaged Woodroof puts its star in classic weight loss Method-acting territory. As Woodroof sidesteps the law to offer unapproved drugs to fellow sufferers, the film works as an Erin Brockovich-style study of an ordinary American taking on the system. And with Woodroof forced to confront his homophobia to help Dallas’ gay community, it veers into the Schindler’s List trope of the friend-to-minorities hero. Were it not real, you’d accuse it of being cynically contrived.
Yet, like Woodroof’s attempts to find the right cocktail of pills to save lives, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s screenplay mixes these elements with real vigour, wit and insight. This is a model of exposition, revealing the flawed system of regulation through the impassioned explanations of a guy who’s done his homework and can scarcely believe what he’s discovered. Info-dumps are restyled as cogent arguments, with plenty of characters given a shot to voice dissent so that Woodroof wins the moral argument fairly.
Crucially, he isn’t a self-important bore but a memorable pain-in-the-ass and Vallée allows the film to be spikily funny, especially in the odd couple relationship between Woodroof and Rayon, the drag queen played by Jared Leto. The latter is, again, an Academy-baiting blend of that category’s penchant for extreme makeovers and/or no-nonsense comic foils. He bagged Best Supporting Actor. Like McConaughey, though, Leto transcends scepticism with an immersive, engaging performance that makes you forget he has barely acted in recent years.
The biggest surprise, and the Academy’s biggest oversight, was to ignore Garner, a crucial part of the film’s structural triangulation. She plays the doctor who renounces her commitment to big pharma in favour of Ron’s cottage industry. Garner is likeable, intelligent and a revelation; on this evidence, more actors should follow McConaughey’s example and take refuge from bad rom-coms.
Ultimately, though, Dallas Buyers Club belongs to its star. McConaughey is obvious casting given his Texan roots, but it’s taken the astonishing run of the past few years to prove he has the dramatic chops needed. His performance has the feel of fate playing a well-deserved hand, allowing McConaughey to show mercurial range, as impishly devil-may-care as he is heart-breakingly fragile. McConaughey is the guy, of course, who coined the phrase Just Keep Livin’ and that’s how he plays Woodroof: a microcosm of life in all of its shading, and a marker of intent to other stars not to be so lazy in their choices.
Dallas Buyers Club is available to watch online on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.