Dallas Buyers Club: the unwilling drugstore cowboy

Tipped for Oscars success in the US, this humanistic portrayal of two Texans importing HIV medication from Mexico is played expertly by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Dallas Buyers Club (15)
dir: Jean-Marc Vallée

To the casual observer, Dallas Buyers Club must resemble a dieting group for Hollywood stars. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto became so emaciated for the film (losing around 45 pounds and 30 pounds, respectively) that whenever one of them places a cigarette between his lips, he seems to double in weight.

There has been a corresponding gain: both collected Golden Globes for their performances and are now nominated for Oscars. But it would be a shame if this method acting hoopla were to overshadow their subtle and insightful acting. Leto was a petulant pixie who had never found the right showcase for his limited charms until now. McConaughey got sidelined a decade ago in a run of romcoms in which he was as sturdy and bland as a Timberland boot. He has a frazzled volatility and a character actor’s thirst for transformation that can sometimes be obscured by his Texan good-ol’-boy tan-and-teeth combo. Yet he has found a happy medium in the past few years in roles that could be adventurous, whether oddball (Killer Joe and his cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street) or orthodox (Mud and Magic Mike).

His contradictory qualities converge in his performance as Ron Woodroof, who works as an electrician and rodeo cowboy in between taking drugs and having sex with women in his ramshackle trailer. Ron has started to shed so much weight that, were he to take a shirt off its hanger and put it on his body, the garment wouldn’t know the difference.

It is 1985 and hospital tests reveal that he is HIV positive. A doctor gives him weeks to live. Barely able to walk, it seems that anger alone is keeping Ron vertical and mobile. Anger, that is, at contracting a disease that links him to a group he despises and calls “Tinker Bells”. There is very little extraneous music in the first half of the film, perhaps because the sound of dramatic irony is loud enough.

Illness is not immediately a balm to Ron’s bigotry. His fury at catching what he perceives to be a gay plague – a perception he shares with the vandals who daub abuse across his trailer – is diverted gradually into a battle with the medical establishment, which is thwarting the flow of retroviral drugs. As Ron obtains effective medication illegally – first for himself and then in batches from Mexico, which he flogs to other sufferers – the on-screen titles make a mockery of his doctor’s predictions: “Day 1” and “Day 2” give way to “Three months later” and “Six months later”. The drugs do work. Ron acquires a business partner – the HIV-positive transgender woman Rayon (Leto). With her gentle eyes rolling wearily in their scooped-out sockets, Rayon is chippy and knowing about the market where Ron is uncouth; she is Mrs Miller to his McCabe.

The screenplay, written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, doesn’t pretend that Ron’s homophobia would have subsided for any reason other than a selfish one. Gay men become human to him only once their suffering overlaps with his. He is still calling people “cocksuckers” by the end of the movie but now his targets for abuse are doctors and politicians; the insult has become metaphorical.

The film has some wry fun at his expense when he enters a gay bar and sees that the iconography on which he hangs his hat – the cowboy dress code of Stetson, sunglasses, moustache and denim – is also the preserve of those he regards as the enemy, the other. Once Ron and Rayon have become partners in crime, we expect a moment when his new life clashes with his old one and the film obliges. Forced in a supermarket to nail his colours to the mast when one of his former buddies mocks Rayon, Ron doesn’t flinch from violently defending his new ally. The picture makes a statement by staging the confrontation where Ron would feel most at home: in front of the prime beef refrigerator, with not a bottle of Perrier in sight.

It’s important to review a film rather than any off-screen accusations against it, which is why I have sidestepped reports casting doubts about the real Ron Woodroof’s homophobia and even his heterosexuality: it would be unfair to punish a picture for unproven compromises.

What is on-screen, at least, is rather fine. Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction is unfussy, even plain, so that moments that might have been underlined (a sexual encounter that is only carefree because both participants already have Aids, or an impressionistic fantasy in a room full of butterflies) are folded into the mix.

McConaughey and Leto drill down to the roots of their characters. It calls to mind that advice for actors playing drunk: you do it like you’re emphatically sober. Neither man plays the disease. They play instead the rage to live.

Fighting spirit: Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses