Matthew McConaughey is favourite to win the best actor Oscar tonight for his role as Ron Woodroof, the homophobic rodeo rider who discovers he’s got HIV and only 30 days to live. Some friends and I were chatting about how the actor famously lost a dramatic amount of weight to play the role, and whether or not this kind of physical transformation hasn’t become a shorthand for acting prowess and a shortcut to award nominations. Not that McConaughey isn’t great in this role – he is and when he’s on screen he’s all you’re watching, but, are we being distracted? So impressed with an actor’s commitment to their craft that we take their stellar acting performance as a given? Take Charlize Theron in Monster; she was superb but probably more attention and applause was paid to her gaining weight and daring to look *ugly* on screen than to her acting. Conversely David Bowie played The Elephant Man on stage in the 1980s with no prosthetics or special effects to assist him – the physicality of his performance effected the transformation.
But, that aside, Dallas Buyers Club is a great film. It’s another of the recent flurry of ‘based on a true story’ movies released in time for awards season (although just how true it is, is up for debate.) Ron Woodroof is a man’s man. A swaggering, hard-living, good-time boy working as a part-time electrician and bull riding in his spare time (as you do, or at least you do in Texas). After getting injured and collapsing at work he discovers that he has HIV and a short time to live. He refuses to passively accept this prognosis, not least because he sees it as a gay disease and he is very definitely anti-gay, and he sets out to educate himself about the virus and its treatment. He sources new drugs not yet approved by the FDA, smuggling them in from Mexico and further afield and eventually establishes the Dallas Buyers Club where the $400 membership fee buys you all the (illegal) meds you need.
It’s eminently watchable with a great cast. Jared Leto (no stranger to ‘the method’ himself) is a revelation as Rayon, a transgender woman and fellow HIV sufferer who befriends a reluctant Ron and becomes his business partner. Jared Leto has always been too pretty to be a boy and makes a frighteningly convincing woman. Their relationship provides much of the film’s humour and ultimately softens Ron’s anti-gay attitude. Jennifer Garner is strong as the sweet and kind-hearted Dr Eve Saks who treats Ron after his initial diagnosis and gradually warms to the man underneath, becoming his friend.
It’s a stark and uncomfortable watch in places. An ugly scene in a bar, where Ron is violently rejected by his rodeo pals, vividly conjures up this frightening time in the 1980s when no one really understood HIV or AIDS. Anyone diagnosed became social pariahs living under a death sentence, their blood and saliva perceived as toxic to the uninfected. The early scenes of Ron’s seedy trailer park life of casual promiscuity and drug-taking (it’s suggested in a brief flashback that he contracted the disease from unprotected sex with an intravenous drug user) also make pretty grim viewing.
In its portrayal of a less than lovely character, at times seemingly unable to halt his own destruction, it reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. And it doesn’t apologise for the lifestyle or the attitudes of those it depicts. But in the same way that Philadelphia broke ground while still retaining a Hollywood gloss, Dallas Buyers Club is in the same vein. In finessing the facts (Rayon and Dr Saks are fictional, representations of multiple characters in Ron’s real life; the real Ron Woodroof was reportedly bisexual and not particularly homophobic) it’s made things appear less ambiguous, more black and white, arguably reducing the emotional punch of the narrative. It must be a tough balance, staying true to the facts while keeping a story entertaining. Real-life is messy and inconsistent and does it really matter if some characters have been invented or exaggerated, if events have been simplified or prettied up a little? If the line between art and reality gets blurred does it detract from a movie’s value?
In this case I say no. Dallas Buyers Club is still a compelling film with a heart and a message and there’s nothing so very bad about that.