When I stepped out of BFI Southbank after seeing a (somewhat) advanced screening of Dallas Buyers Club, I knew I’d just seen a very important film. I think the first words out of my mouth were to describe it as ‘Breaking Bad with a conscience’, in the most affectionate way possible. However, for reasons I hope to explain, it didn’t quite impact me in a way I believe it could have. Despite beautifully dense direction and a consistent charmingly dark tone, the film’s ensemble appears muted at times, despite its avant-guard subject material. As it stands, Dallas Buyers Club is a well-crafted film, with a moving narrative and brilliant social commentary, but its only truly extraordinary quality lies in Matthew McConaughey’s transfixing performance as bull-rider turned pharmacist Ron Woodroof.
Without a doubt, McConaughey takes one of the year’s most fascinating characters and, with no exaggeration, performs him to near-perfection. The film initiates Ron Woodroof’s beautifully crafted character arc as a groupie-humping, thrill-seeking homophobe, and continues to riff with his initially unapparent complexities with maturity, never giving too much away or hamfistedly throwing away key beats. Despite staring the realities of AIDS right in the face, Woodroof lies to himself and his friends, giving the audience time to understand his past. From this, we have an opportunity to gain a profound appreciation for his future. The exact moment Woodroof faces his prospects became the instant McConaughey’s performance transcended from proficient to legendary. Behind his steering wheel, gun in hand, Woodroof’s moment of abject regret and helplessness is one of the film’s most memorable sequences. Lasting only a few seconds, Woodroof’s sorrow overwhelms him along with audience, demonstrating McConaughey’s spectacular capacity for breaking down in tears. The film continues to exhibit McConaughey’s finesse, as he shifts from depressive activist to charming lobbyist, and never ceases to keep the audience engaged.
In a way, I think McConaughey’s excellence accentuates one of the film’s key flaws: there is a definite lack of true ensemble performance. It’s not quite a one-man-show, but it arrives fairly close to that territory. Probably my biggest problem with the film is Jennifer Garner’s embarrassingly undeveloped Eve. It’s a pretty sorry state when a characters’ establishing line of dialogue is ‘I’m a FUCKING doctor’. I pictured the writers proudly rubbing their hands together, thinking ‘Wow, look how tough our female lead is. Guess we can tick that off the checklist’. It was a lazy bit of writing that substituted meaningful characterisation for.. whatever that was. Throwaway female leads, even in acclaimed films such as Dallas Buyers Club, are disappointingly still settled for. That said, I particularly liked Garner’s picture-hanging scene, and I think that her character’s flaws lie in writing rather than execution.
The rest of the cast also fails to meet McConaughey in the middle as an ensemble, with two notable exceptions: Griffin Dunne’s unlicensed Dr. Vass, who was a really nice addition; and Jared Leto’s Rayon, who is ultimately responsible for Ron’s transformation and a source of humour and tragedy. The rest of the company boils down to archetypes, stereotypes, and caricature, and failed to achieve a sense of unity (unlike, for example, Wolf of Wall Street’s impressive collective performance). Given the realistic tone of the rest of the film, it comes off as hollow and unrealised potential.
Acting aside, one of Dallas Buyers Club’s greatest strengths lies in its captivating tone and pacing. It carries itself with consistent dark humour, but never compromises with its depictions of the harrowing realities of its subject matter. In a way, the humour bolsters the impact of some of the bleaker moments and ties the film together as a coherent work, making up for some of the weaker moments of writing with excellent direction. The shot of Woodroof deafeningly surrounded by butterflies, sporadically illuminated by a flickering light, was a beautiful realisation of the film’s main visual and emotional motifs; in the face of utter despair, hope and beauty can be unearthed and created. However, I do feel like many of the more ‘heart-wrenching’ scenes fell short of the mark. At times I simply didn’t feel moved, and I don’t presume to attribute this to a steely emotional exoskeleton. Despite my own perceptions, the film remains an inspiring tribute to the unrecognised few who strive to make a difference to the lives of others.
Overall, Dallas Buyers Club is a well-crafted piece of cinema, lifted into excellence through Matthew McConaughey’s stellar performance. Though it didn’t quite resonate with me emotionally, I definitely recognise it as a critically important film for many around the world, and would recommend it unhesitatingly.