Matthew McConaughey is still unbearably smug, but with the daring roles he’s been taking on lately even I have to admit that he’s growing on me.
Dallas Buyers Club was among the last of the Best Picture nominees I had yet to watch in preparation for the Oscars next week, and it’s also one of the ones I knew the least about. All I knew was that it starred McConaughey and Jared Leto, who lost a lot of weight and tried to look like a woman.
As it turned out, it’s another true story (making it 6 of the 9 nominees — the only non-true story ones are Gravity, Her and Nebraska), about a womanizing, drug-taking bigot rodeo by the name of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) who discovers that he has AIDS and is told that he only a very short amount of time to live. At the time, the mid-1980s, AIDS was a relatively unknown disease largely associated with homosexual behaviour, which of course does not go down well with the homophobic Woodroof and his macho friends.
The core of the movie begins from the diagnosis, as Woodroof goes from trying to find useful drugs to prolong his life to selling unapproved AIDS drugs through the titular Dallas Buyers Club he ran with Rayon, a transgender HIV-positive woman played by an eerily recognisable Jared Leto. It is more or less a condemnation of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the ridiculous snail pace it approves drugs to combat life threatening illnesses. What is the point of being told that new drugs could save your life in a few years when you only have months to live?
McConaughey and Leto have been nominated for their respective roles and rightfully so, as it is their performances that drive the film’s engine. Both actors look like they lost a ton of weight for their roles and genuinely look like AIDS patients, which is impressive in itself, though it’s their back-and-forth chemistry that elevate Dallas Buyers Club into Oscar contention territory. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is a buddy movie — it’s more about how imminent death sparks a bigoted, hedonistic man’s journey towards salvation — but the the dynamics of their contrasting personalities do provide the base for some entertaining interactions and conversations.
The supporting cast is solid too. Jennifer Garner, who rarely gets out these days from the prison of Ben Affleck, plays a doctor who sympathizes with their plight, while Dennis O’Hare plays her antagonistic boss who believes he knows what is best for patients. Steve Zahn also has a minor role as a local cop torn between his duty to his job and to his friend Woodroof.
I found Dallas Buyers Club to be an unusual film. On the one hand I was impressed with the performances and how informative and insightful it was about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but on the other I didn’t really enjoy it as much as the other Best Picture nominees this year despite its powerful subject matter. Part of the reason is because I had trouble connecting with both McConaughey and Leto’s characters. Leto has this one great emotional scene where he confronts his father, but McConaughey’s character is mostly self-serving and doesn’t show a lot of redeemable qualities until nearly the very the end. And unlike say a comedic farce like The Wolf of Wall Street, this was the kind of film where you really need to feel something for the protagonist early on for the film to work.
That said, I liked the lack of sentimentality in the direction of Jean Marc-Vallee (The Young Victoria) and can understand why the film has rated so well with critics. It’s a solid film from all angles and carries an inspiring message, but ultimately I wasn’t as moved by it as I thought I would be.
3.75 stars out of 5