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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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we 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.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.