Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

In light of the two acting gongs awarded at last weekend’s Oscars ceremony, one would expect Dallas Buyers Club to be primarily a character study. But, though there is a lot of heavyweight acting on show from Matthew McConaughey (Best Actor) and Jared Leto (Best Supporting Actor), once the film gets going the central narrative concern is not the personal crises these characters face, but the wider political debate concerning state-governed healthcare.

This direction the plot takes comes as an unexpected surprise given the way the film begins. Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a macho electrician prone to causal homophobia, is, much to his disbelief, diagnosed with AIDS and given just 30 days to live. From here the conventional path to follow would be to focus on Ron’s coming to terms with his impending death and his changing attitudes towards the disease and the gay community, and to an extent this is what the film does. But through following Ron’s desperate pursuit of the potentially life-saving drugs that have not yet been government approved, and in turn the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ business he starts by smuggling these unauthorised drugs across the border to sell to other HIV sufferers, the film takes a step back from the personal concerns of its individuals and the specific AIDS crisis of the 1980s in which it is set.

Instead, the issue at the heart of Dallas Buyers Club is Obamacare. During the film’s 20 years in development hell the context of the AIDS epidemic has diminished, and now the film plays out the conflict between Big Government and individual freedom that has been brought into the forefront of American consciousness through Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act.

Though often even-handed and far from the hysterical ‘Death Panel’ conspiracies voiced by the Tea Party movement, the film does still land on the right-wing side of the debate. We’re invited to side with Ron and share his rage at the hospital bigwigs for not allowing patients access to the drugs, and applaud his survival instincts and entrepreneurial spirit. He’s never sentimentalised – a positive to the film in general – and it’s made clear that he runs his business primarily for profit, but the ethics of him selling treatments to vulnerable patients against the advice of the more qualified doctors are never really questioned. Ron is the undisputed hero of the film and therefore in the right, while the hospitals and (more appropriately) the pharmaceutical companies are generally cast as the bad guys.

Notwithstanding this troubling political message, Dallas Buyers Club plays is an affective drama, directed artfully and at a zippy pace by Jean-Marc Vallée. Typically for a feature length film, Woodroof’s transformation from a repulsive bigot to charming good guy happens far too quickly to be believable, but the character is endearing all the same.

For this of course we have the fantastic Matthew McConaughey to thank. Of all the stirring performances he’s produced during his ‘McConaissance’ this is perhaps the best, showcasing his charm, range, poignancy, and – through his shocking weight loss - an admirable commitment to his work. Without his talent it is unlikely that Ron would have emitted the wit, strong-will and intelligence that defy the redneck stereotypes and make him a rounded and ultimately likeable character.

Jared Leto does a great job too of providing dignity and depth to his character Rayon, Ron’s transgender business partner also diagnosed as HIV positive, who might otherwise have dissolved into cliché. His relative sidelining in the narrative however highlights another of the film’s flaws; that is, the choice to make a film about the AIDS epidemic that centres not on one of the many homosexual sufferers, but rather on a heterosexual white male. But such is the conservative nature of Hollywood that even making a film about AIDS (before now Philadelphia was the only example) feels like progress.

By the end it becomes clear that the opening scene of a man riding a bull at a Texas rodeo is a symbol for man’s freedom to live on his own terms and to make his own choice concerning his safety. But, athough we do cheer Woodroof on in the face of adversity, the political message of the film does leave a sour taste in the mouth. 


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