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Dallas Buyers Club (AF)

8/10

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Denis O'Hare, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn, Michael O'Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin, Kevin Rankin, Donna Duplantier, Deneen Tyler

Director: Jean-Marc Valle

It’s hardly surprising that Melissa Wade’s screenplay for this fact-based story kicked around Hollywood for some 20 years.

The true life saga of drug-taking, loose-living homophobic rodeo rider Texan Ron Woodroof who, after being diagnosed as having HIV/AIDs in 1985 was given only 30 days to live, carried on for another seven years and created the eponymous drug supply organization for fellow AIDs sufferers, could hardly have been by the usually profit-seeking producers as having any box-office potential.

Finally with a $6 million budget and a 28 days shooting schedule, it was unexpectedly brought to the screen by French-Canadian director Jean Marc Vallee in 2013.

Even more surprising, perhaps, is that rom-com hunk Matthew McConaughey catalyzed the production and has deservedly earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his extraordinary portrait of Woodroof.

Indeed, in the moderately large sub-genre of gays-suffering-from-HIV/AIDS movies, Dallas Buyers Club stands out as having a protagonist who is not only straight but actively homophobic in the bargain.

Which makes his fluctuating from friendly-to-belligerent on-screen relationship with vividly camp gay fellow- sufferer Jared Leto (also rightly nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award) all the more telling.

They and Jennifer Garner as the doctor who befriends Woodroof and arouses animus with her superior Denis O’Hare who is patently in thrall to the pharmaceutical company behind the drug AZT which he is double-blind testing on HIV/AIDs patients serve up strong support.

Coke-sniffing hedonist Woodruff’s unexpected survival centres on his smuggling of non-lethal antiviral drugs from Mexico (when he is stopped, dressed as a priest, by US Customs in possession of thousands of pills he claims are for his own use. “I take 33 pills a day”.

His creation of the Dallas Buyers Club whose members get non-toxic medication free after paying a subscription, inevitably brings him bitter confrontation by the Food and Drugs Administration whose job (like N.I.C.E in Britain) is to declare drugs safe for prescription and for sale by profit hungry pharmaceuticals manufacturers. (I found this confrontation scarily credible, having worked for many years in the British Pharmaceutical industry.)

Vallee’s direction of Wade’s strongly cast screenplay is commendable, avoiding sensationalism in favour of well-driven exposition and even more commendable casting. Garner handles her less surprising role with skill, O’Hare is truly and believably nasty and Leto makes a fine foil for McConaughey as well as a memorable character in his own right.

But it’s McConaughey who gives the story its extraordinary power. Forget the rom-com hunk and the buff dancer from Magic Mike. Here, painfully gaunt after losing 38 lbs, he’s first seen having sex with a woman under the bleachers at the rodeo before transforming into a ‘dying’ fighter for HIV/AIDS victims.

His powerful performance isn’t simply based on appearing to be as thin as a rake. McConaughey’s Woodroof is amazingly convincing, giving an extraordinary enough biopic an extra dramatic and creative punch that demands to be seen.

Alan Frank

USA 2013. UK Distributor: Entertainment One. Colour.
117 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 2, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 2, Swearing 2.

Review date: 01 Feb 2014