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

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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Power-sharing and devolved rule are under threat. What's going on? Ciara Dunne explains. 

The UUP will formalise their decision to withdraw from the Northern Ireland executive on Saturday. The DUP then announced that it may consider voting to remove Sinn Fein from the executive effectively ending or at least suspending devolution. This is due to a statement by PSNI chief constable George Hamilton stating that former IRA member Kevin McGuigan may have been murdered by people connected to the Provisional IRA (PIRA). However Hamilton also stressed that there was no evidence to prove that the murder occurred due to PIRA orders and there are claims that it was a personal vendett.

The UUP declaring that they will withdraw from Westminster is not particularly destructive. They only have one minister and their vote share has been steadily declining since they signed the Good Friday Agreement to the benefit of the DUP. By acting so dramatically, they run the risk of this seeming like the death rattle of a party trying to remain relevant in a world so different from its heyday rather than a principled stand to protect the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement.

Nesbitt voiced disgust that the IRA was still in existence. However the IRA is not one group and many of its splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and Real IRA (RIRA) didn’t sign up to the Good Friday Agreement and have been active since it. They were not the only paramilitary groups that did not sign up, fragments of extremism have existed since the PIRA decommissioned and it seems likely that they incorporated those who had been PIRA members who were disillusioned by the agreement. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach and Good Friday Agreement negotiator, explained while the PIRA had to decommission as part of the agreement, for various reasons it was allowed to exist in a non-armed state. News of its existence shouldn’t come as a shock to the only major unionist party that engaged in Good Friday Agreement negotiations. If the PIRA were proved to be armed and active then this response would be understandable but that is not the case.

What this stand does however give the UUP is a unique selling point compared to their rivals the DUP and it can somewhat tackle the perception some have that the UUP betrayed the unionist community when it agreed to work with Sinn Féin in government.

The DUP has been less drastic. Although they have stated that they would consider pulling out of government, they have described it as temporary suspension of government rather than a total breakdown of trust. Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP, said that if they are to continue to power share with Sinn Féin, they must ensure the PIRA issue dealt with ‘in terms that gives everyone the reassurance that this isn’t going to happen again’. This is a reasonable request and something Sinn Féin must do. They should be unwavering in their condemnation of any paramilitary organisations. However so far they haven’t done otherwise, several senior figures have denied that the PIRA have rearmed. Pearse Doherty, a prominent Sinn Féin TD, insisted that when it came to the IRA “the war is over, they’re not coming back”.

The best way to tackle paramilitaries is to tackle the reasons people joined them. This can be done not by threatening to withdraw from the government but standing together against sectarianism. Parties must ensure that there is a functioning government that works for the good of everyone and gives people a genuine stake in society. It is important that representatives of both communities condemn paramilitaries, in actions as well as words. All parties will soon have the opportunity to move away from old associations, as the old guard age and move aside and the younger members who are untainted by such associations, take charge of the party.

However, it is vital that parties take a considered stance in anything controversial for this to work. In this case, it is not yet certain whether the connections are historical or current. Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has stated she has no reason to believe that the PIRA are active in the military sense. Bertie Ahern pointed out that it is possible that ‘these atrocities are being done [by those] who might have been on the inside but are now long since on the outside?’ Political posturing could have terrible consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, especially if results in a party with a large electoral mandate being removed from government when there is no proof it has broken the agreement.

If the UUP and the DUP are truly concerned, a more constructive reaction is to push for the reintroduction of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). The IMC monitored paramilitary activity from 2004 to 2011 and its final report stated that ‘transition from conflict is a long slow process’. This latest incident shows this is true and it is likely that the IMC was disbanded too soon. Reconvening the IMC would offer a way to monitor paramilitary activity and to find patterns and evidence rather than allowing a single incident to destroy progress. If reconvened however it should address the issues that resulted in Sinn Féin’s criticism of the body. A more balanced panel, one agreed by all parties, would address this, the previous one was described as three spooks and a lord, but would still add value to the peace process.

If political parties pull out of the power sharing agreement over an incident that the police have not yet connecting to a sophisticated paramilitary organisation with political connections, they are handing extremism a victory while taking democratic choice away from the people of Northern Ireland. The majority of people in Northern Ireland have been clear, both in referendum and in their actions, they want peace and stability. If the parties of Northern Ireland don’t fight to protect this then they are betraying everyone who believed in the Good Friday Agreement and reconciliation.