There’s a rather conventional biopic lurking in the framework of Dallas Buyers Club, but it takes a while to notice. Bravura performances from the freakishly skeletal Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto (who both lost around 40 pounds for their roles) as well as assured, character-driven storytelling from French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Valleée renders AIDS patient/activist Ron Woodroof's legacy in a way that feels alive and fresh.
McConaughey's Ron is a vile, homophobic Texan given to hustling, drugs and sleeping around. When diagnosed with HIV, Ron violently denies being gay as if that’s the only way to contract the virus, because he lives in Texas in the mid-'80s and some people just don’t know any better.
With toxic doses of AZT being the medical establishment's prescription, Ron goes abroad to source a healthier, non-FDA approved treatment, which he immediately peddles to other patients in the Dallas area. He finds an unlikely business partner in Leto’s Rayon, a transsexual full of moxie who chisels away at Ron’s prejudices.
Yes, that is Jared Leto.
Leto is outstanding, playing Rayon not as a dandyish stereotype but simply and effectively as a woman who just happens to have a 5 o’clock shadow. The delicate relationship between Ron and Rayon, which naturally begins on adversarial terms, forms the film’s emotional payoff—too bad there isn’t more of it. Along with Vallee, the actors patiently tease out the bond between the characters, so that Ron’s transition from redneck bigot to emphatic defender of the marginalized doesn’t feel cheap or forced, instead building up to a graceful, moving moment of classical chivalry.
More attention will be paid—not undeservingly—to McConaughey, who dropped an unhealthy 38 pounds for the role to look unrecognisably skeletal. The performance is not limited to this bodily stunt, though. With his Texan-drawl, loose swagger, wild eyes and natural charisma, McConaughey exudes grit and authenticity and the film is undeniably anchored by his performance. Meanwhile, director Jean-Marc Vallée, who with films like C.R.A.Z.Y. and Café de Flore showed off a Scorsese-like flair for flashy edits and soundtrack cues, exhibits restraint in service of character, opting for a dour, in-the-moment look and only select visual flourishes.
Such service to at least the aura of authenticity makes it easy to enjoy the film’s contrivances and loose depiction of facts. Dallas Buyer’s Club only falters during its last act which drags along, searching for a conventionally satisfying note to end on, sticking, unfortunately, to the routine that most biopics prescribe.
The film opens November 1 in Toronto and Montreal, November 8 in Vancouver and will expand into other markets on November 22. Released in UK on February 7, 2014.
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