You would have thought that Ron Woodroof’s extraordinary real life story fighting AIDS and the American legal system provided enough material for a fully engaging cinematic drama without the necessity to compromise in a way that has long been the curse of films targeting both art-house and mainstream audiences and award season recognition.
Woodroof learned that he was suffering from AIDS late in the day after contracting the virus from unprotected sex – probably with a prostitute – and latched on to insider concerns with the safety of the highly toxic drug, AZT, then in its infancy but one that the FDA was testing during clinical trials in the hope of slowing down the virus. After stumbling across an alternative in Mexico – a blend of proteins and supplements – which seemed credible but without AZT’s toxicity, he established the Dallas Buyers Club of the film’s title and circumvented the US drug licensing laws – it was an unapproved cocktail at that time – by selling membership and giving the drugs to its patrons free. It was a controversial but resourceful form of self-help that sprung up stateside during the Eighties; a means to counter Reagan’s shameful and unforgivable complacency.
We shall never know how the real Woodroof would have reacted to this film’s portrayal of his survival or, more precisely, delaying the inevitable against the odds; a stay that should not have extended beyond 30 days, according to his doctors, but lasted a staggering seven years. What a remarkable heroism this was, overriding ultimate personal devastation with a purpose that terminal illness could have taken away at any moment; a terrible time bomb perpetually at the point of detonation.
It’s desperately disappointing that French Canadian filmmaker, Jean-Marc Vallee, best known for ‘C.R.A.Z.Y’, has trivialised Woodroof’s story by giving it a familiar plot trajectory – what was he thinking of – that transforms genuine tragedy into a heightened melodrama of the kind that we should normally associate with genre films doing the social conscious thing without conviction or, worse, cheap afternoon TV soap opera constantly raising the stakes when it does not seem possible to lift the bar any further.
And it’s a missed opportunity and a travesty, which undermines Matthew McConaughey’s tour de force performance in the lead role that brilliantly balances Woodroof’s zest for life and acute sense of premature death during a prolonged endgame, where a reckless spirit and unflinching willpower, being once self destructive, mutate into enterprising survival tools and more.
And there are times – particularly during the first hour – when McConaughey almost single handedly papers over the cracks, making it more involving than the rest of the film warranted. Jared Leto has also received much praise and, like McConaughey, seems to be heading for Oscar recognition in a best actor and supporting actor double, but, in truth, his performance is competent rather than exceptional; Leto playing Rayon, a cynical drag queen with a heart of the kind that popped up in American experimental film during the Sixties and has long become a model for more mainstream movies ever since.
Here, Woodroof and Rayon are one of those odd couples of American cinema that don’t come across as odd anymore; more a patronising contrivance that validates gender constructs in all the wrong ways. Vallee does the old binary opposite trick; pitching an extreme homophobe ‘bare-back’ – a ready made metaphor – rodeo rider, all unbridled aggression and masculinity – “I ain’t no faggot” is his reaction to the AIDS diagnosis – alongside the smart but vulnerable society outsider. And, you guessed it, they become inseparable companions after a difficult start in a buddy movie sort of way, sniffing cocaine and tick boxing every cliché in the book. In a terrible scene – where Vallee completely loses the audience – Woodroof makes one of his gay hating former sidekicks shake Rayon’s hand when in a wresting style armlock cum strangulation choker.
The film’s worst moments, though, belong to Jennifer Garner. She has the impossible task of playing the ‘stock’ caring doctor, who is prepared to put her career on the line in support of Woodroof’s seemingly one man campaign against the FDA and the American government for recklessly promoting AZT. And – honest – they develop one of those ‘if things were different then’ relationships in scenes which would go down a treat in a satirical take on American TV movies or one of those rom-coms that McConaughey used to make.
This is a film which has something in common with Scott Cooper’s ‘Crazy Heart’. An unworthy effort with a great central performance.