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Posts Tagged ‘Jean-Marc Vallee’

Regular readers may recall the malaise visited upon your correspondent by the succession of predominantly worthy, ostentatiously noble based-on-a-true-story films which recently filled cinemas. To be perfectly honest, I would have expected Dallas Buyers Club to have produced exactly the same response – it’s the moderately true story of a maverick AIDS sufferer who sets out to challenge counter-productive drugs legislation and thus improve the lot not only of himself, but also a large group of fellow sufferers.

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Yet this is not the case. The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (wasn’t he Batman for a bit a couple of decades ago?), does a good impression of being rather more honest than your typical piece of Oscar fodder – honest to the point of disreputability, in places – and also of not being solely motivated by a desire to win gongs and critical acclaim. Certainly films about AIDS are less of a sure thing in the awards season than race relations or less recent history, but if nothing else, the lead performances of this film demand serious consideration.

Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a Texan electrician, gambler, rodeo fan and general bon vivant (sometimes he enjoys several of these pursuits almost simultaneously, as we see in the opening sequence where he energetically disports himself in a pen next to the rodeo ring with a couple of young ladies, prior to placing a few bets). He is, as you might surmise, very unreconstructedly hetero-normative, and does not respond well to being informed, after an accident at work, that he is in fact in the advanced stages of HIV infection. This is 1985, when HIV and AIDS were generally considered to be exclusively homosexual conditions. Woodroof is contemptuous of the doctors’ prognosis that he has only a month to live, and goes on about his business.

Soon enough, however, the gravity of his situation sinks in on Ron and he sets about beating the prognosis with a ferocious zeal. Initially he sets about securing a supply of AZT, a retroviral drug undergoing its initial human trials, but an encounter with a disbarred medic (Griffin Dunne) in an unlicensed Mexican clinic opens his eyes to other possibilities for treatment.

The problem is that most of these other options involve medications not licensed by the American FDA and thus not available for sale in the USA. This is not something to deter a man like Ron Woodroof, of course. Following the example of a group of fellow-sufferers in New York, and with the assistance of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite he encounters during one of his hospital stays, Ron hits upon a wheeze where he doesn’t actually sell drugs to HIV patients, just charges them for membership of a club which provides retroviral treatment as a subscription benefit. Thus the Dallas Buyers Club is born – and if Ron ends up making a little money from the enterprise, what of it?

Dallas Buyers Club is a film about a number of things, but it is neatly-enough assembled for none of them to predominate, and as it a result it doesn’t come across as either preachy, didactic, or pretentious. The film is on one level an historical document about the attitudes of the medical establishment during the early years of the response to the HIV crisis – there is a sympathetic doctor on display, played by Jennifer Garner (who has mousied herself down for the part), but most of the doctors in the movie come across as hidebound, arrogant, and in thrall to the power of the FDA – which in turn is in the pocket of Big Pharma. The film doesn’t hide the fact that its sympathies are unreservedly with Woodroof and other people in his situation, cogently arguing that at this point FDA regulations were protecting corporate profits rather than the lives of patients.

Most of the above, however, really takes place in the background of the film, which is more about the story of Ron Woodroof himself. I suppose one is obliged to comment on the fact that, as usual, Woodroof’s life story has been selectively edited to suit the narrative of the story – in reality, Woodroof was apparently bisexual and had a daughter, neither of which facts are apparent on screen – but I suppose we would be foolish to expect anything else in a modern film. In any case, this should not distract from McConaughey’s astonishing, incendiary performance. The actor is physically almost unrecognisable, and one shudders to contemplate the dieting regimen he must have employed to give himself the distinctively ravaged physique of an AIDS sufferer, as he has here. But this is just the foundation on which McConaughey builds his characterisation – he never shies away from making Woodroof an outlandish, paradoxical figure, a homophobe who becomes a pillar of the gay community, a hustling outlaw who also becomes a formidable authority on pharmaceuticals and the law surrounding them. He is magnetic, and this forms something of a culmination to a couple of years which have seen the actor reinvent himself as a serious performer: for this reason, coupled to the strength of his performance, an Oscar win for McConaughey is by no means out of the question.

Nor is one for Leto, who also delivers a credible, three-dimensional portrait – perhaps there is an element of stereotype in his feisty drag-queen, but not to an excessive degree. Garner is also effective. The relationships between the characters are convincingly presented, with genuine warmth and a surprising level of humour. This is a serious film about an important topic – though any criticisms it may have of the US health care system as it currently exists are deeply implicit – but is by no means a dry or heavy one. Not that it is necessarily for everyone, of course: there is some sexual content, not to mention an F-bomb count probably reaching a three-figure total.

I’m still not sure this is a film one would genuine go to see solely for enjoyment, though the story is interesting and well-told and the performances mostly excellent. But at least one does not emerge from it in a black morass of despair or feeling manipulated like a puppet on a string. Perhaps I am letting my own prejudices show, but of the ‘issue’ films currently pitching for Oscars attention, this one was rather more to my taste than most, quite simply because it seemed to be putting the story first. A fine and intelligent movie, with a brilliant lead performance: I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

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