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

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism