Mortality is never an easy thing for anyone to grapple with.
But it carries even more sting in its tale when you’re the sort of person who think they’re ten feet tall and bulletproof, immune to the vicissitudes of life, flicking off a pronouncement of imminent death like you’re dispatching annoying gnats on a warm summer evening.
Ron Woodruff, the protagonist in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, is one such person, played with powerhouse machismo and bravado by Matthew McConaughey in yet another of the transformative roles that have defined his career of late, a beer-guzzling, drug-taking, rodeo bull-riding electrician who has yet to meet a woman who doesn’t immediately fall for his potent charms.
He likes to think he is armour-plated against life, a man who has seized it by the horns, wrestled it to the ground and beaten it into cowering submission.
The truth is, of course, that he is a man on a blue collar wage, living in a trailer park, as emotionally isolated from the world around him as he likes to think he is connected, beaten by life even as he believes he bestrides it like a cowboy hat-wearing god.
His world, as shaky as a house of cards in reality if not in self-belief, gets shaken to its core then when in 1985, after electrocuting himself at work trying to save an injured workmate, he is diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live by the two doctors who attend to him, De Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Dr Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), the latter of whom ends up first a reluctant then wholehearted ally in his struggle to beat the system.
Buoyed by a sense that he is immortal, he initially rejects this diagnosis, refuting any suggestions he is a “homo” or an intravenous drug user, determined to prove to everyone around him that he can defy this most deadly of diseases with the sort of brazen defiance that has characterised his life to date.
But his body refuses to go along with this blad-faced self-deception, and newly aware that he is facing an enemy that bravado alone cannot tame, he finds himself traversing the globe to find the drugs from countries as diverse as Mexico, France and Israel, none of which are approved by the USA’s Food and Drug Administration, that will keep him, and other AIDS patients he meets and befriends alive for as long as possible.
One of these patients is a transgender man called Rayon (played with award-winning sensitivity and ballsy grace by Jared Leto who steals the film out from under a highly impressive McConaughey giving you some idea of the acting calibre on display in the film) who ends up as the homophobic Woodruff’s business partner, and eventual friend.
And it is the friendship between these two people that defines the humanity and desperate will to live that defines so much of Dallas Buyers Club.
What could have simply been a rather conventional bio pic is transformed into a stirring and utterly moving tale of people fighting a system that seems to be callously inured against their very real and all time-restricted plight.
McConaughey ably transforms Woodruff from a slur-spewing redneck who almost spits on every gay man he sees into a man who sees much in common with the gay men and drug users who become members of his “buyers club”, which is formed in a bid to get around the illegality of selling the non-approved drugs directly.
It isn’t a fairytale transformation by any measure, held in check by Woodruff’s unwillingness, even as he fights both looming and a seemingly heartless bureaucracy, to accept that the world he once knew has wholly and irrevocably changed.
The changes that occur in the man are gradual, believable and many times, initially at least, driven by a necessity to simply ensure his own survival.
But once they take place, they are as immutable as his once iron clad belief in his own invincibility, and he stands loyally by the at turns funny and heartfelt Rayon and the other club members, determined, in the end, to fight to save them every bit as much as himself.
It is this grounding in initial self-interest and uncaring reality that lifts Dallas Buyers Club out of the realm of the inspirational Oprah-esque bio pic and roots it firmly in the camp of a meaningful and believable tale of the height of the AIDS crisis.
While the film does have some achilles heels – it doesn’t do enough to elevate Dr Saks characters beyond the sympathetic voice of the establishment and a sense of urgency and emotional connection with some characters is oddly lacking at times – it is overall an engrossing, soul-stirring story, beautifully and heartbreakingly played out by two actors very clearly at the top of their game.
- Viewed Friday 24 January 2014.