The Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories during the 2014 awards season have been dominated by two men: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. A Critics’ Choice double, Screen Actors Guild double and Golden Globes double have all landed, and with nominations in the upcoming Academy Awards in March, they’re odds-on favourites for another brace.
McConaughey has achieved this acclaim for his role as Ron Woodroof, a man who, after being told he was HIV positive and soon to die, found prescriptions of approved drugs slow and the drugs themselves unhelpful. As a consequence he initiated a ‘buyers club’ – an illegal way of supplying unapproved (though more effective) HIV/AIDS drugs from foreign countries, for the benefit of thousands of people. Though he is based on a real-life person, the film’s other main characters are not, including transgender woman Rayon, played by Jared Leto. Rayon proves to be a significant influence in reforming Ron’s homophobic prejudices, replacing the friends who abandoned him amidst allegations of homosexuality. Jennifer Garner also features, competently enough, as a nurse caught up between her sympathy for sufferers such as Woodroof and Rayon and the controversial double-blind trial of antiretroviral drug AZT.
Jean-Marc Vallée approaches Dallas Buyers Club with the sensitivity and understanding deserving of such a difficult topic in history, and although some may feel a sense of relief that HIV/AIDS is presently better-understood, the stigma attached to those who are diagnosed, and to members of the LGBT community, is distressingly a very contemporary issue. Helpfully, the film is confidently constructed, revealing the plight of HIV sufferers and gradually, Woodroof’s realisation that this is an issue that could change the life of anybody, forever. Importantly, though, it is alarming that condoms and safe sex in general is an avoided topic, where abstinence is instead the measure undertaken.
Where on the one hand McConaughey’s performance is moving, Leto would be better described as authentically tragic, but as assured as it is, it’s not the best by a supporting actor in the past year. Credit where it’s due, of course: Rayon is infinitely more likeable than Ron, and more inspiring, and it’s difficult enough to play a person with HIV, never mind a transgender woman too. Perhaps it’s simply the want for further screen-time and character development that holds it back.
Upon other issues, a soundtrack is nonexistent and any inventiveness in the cinematography department only occurs during a bender or a pass-out. Nevertheless, the film is better off without cheesy soundtracks to pull on your heartstrings, and the film’s adherence to cinematic convention is risk-free and understandable. Style is not lacking, however, as the picture of 1980’s Dallas is painted with verve, a rodeo culture encapsulated and Rayon’s glamour the highlight of every scene in which she features.
On the whole this is an eye-opening film that confronts HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues with an open-hearted understanding. A strong, sassy performance from Jared Leto plays well with Matthew McConaughey’s profound lead, and despite being set almost thirty years ago, Dallas Buyers Club must be appreciated as crucially relevant to the present day.