Dallas Buyers Club

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club
"McConaughey's performance is a tour de force."

Around 1985, Ron Woodruff was diagnosed with AIDS and told he had a month to live. His first reaction was denial. How could he have AIDS? He wasn't queer. He was, in fact, cheerfully homophobic, and mysogynistic to boot, a fast living, hard drinking, coke-snorting, rodeo-loving Texan redneck. His second reaction was rebellion. Whatever else he might be, Ron was a fighter, and he had absolutely no intention of giving up on life.

Ron was one of those larger than life characters who seem destined to end up in films. His story here has been heavily fictionalised, with some characters invented to summarise his relationships with large numbers of others. The gist of it, though, is the same, and Ron's relatives, themselves absent from the film, say that Ron's personality is too, expressing delight at the casting of Matthew McConaughey. His performance is a tour de force. He makes us root for Ron right from the start, at his most obnoxious and at his most ludicrous. Even as his body wastes (with the actor losing 40 pounds for the role), Ron is bursting with life.

In the Eighties - even, to an extent, today - living with AIDS created particular difficulties for a straight man. As his friends react with horror, convinced he must be secretly gay, Ron finds himself utterly isolated. He tries visiting a support group but can't identify with anybody there. Only one person really talks to him, stubbornly forcing a way through his prejudice and refusing to take him too seriously. This is Rayon (Jared Leto), an emaciated trans woman herself adrift in a world that seems to have no place for her. Rayon too is determined to survive and as Ron develops a scheme to smuggle non-FDA approved medicines into the country, the two inevitably team up.

For those who lost friends during the early AIDS era, and who remember the way many victims were treated, the horror of it never completely goes away. Dallas Buyers' Club effectively captures that horror but is more powerful because it does so only in brief glimpses. It's the monster we know is there but rarely see. In the foreground is all the joy that comes from living furiously. Though it's doubtful that he ever walked away from a fight in his life, Ron is all the more powerful when he has nothing to lose, and he's a man who relishes a challenge. His schemes and scams keep the story moving at a lively pace and his humour gives it energy. Transformed by the scale of the task he faces, he moves from threatening thugs in trailer parks to threatening corporations.

Leto also impresses with one of the most realistic depictions of a trans woman yet seen on the big screen, taking on the complexities of a character who is destroying herself with drugs but remains vivacious, and who is utterly unable to pass as male when briefly obliged to wear a suit. She's also sufficiently steeped in queer culture - as are several minor characters - to make this a film that acknowledges the totality of the early AIDS experience rather than polishing it for mainstream society as Philadelphia did. Though Ron is shown acting responsibly once he knows he's infected, his earlier fondness for promiscuous, unprotected sex is treated with a similar lack of apologism, contributing to a film that feels fresh and honest, not simply telling its version of a true story but delivering the stories of many people who have spent too long hidden away, treated as if they deserved what they got.

This is a film that embodies a lot of anger but never comes across as hectoring - it's far too gleefully subversive for that. For all the ugliness, it's also a tremendous amount of fun. Yves Bélanger's cinematography somehow keeps us focused through a riot of colour and motion. Jean-Marc Vallée's direction effortlessly carries us through changes of perception brought on by illness, violence, drugs and thinking. It's one of the smartest films of the year and should not be missed.

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2013
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When a fast-living heterosexual redneck develops AIDS, he refuses to take it lying down, and in his struggle makes some unlikely friends.
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