So, no, Mathew McConaughey doesn’t play the RomCom game anymore. The goofy, muscly, tanned sexiest-man-alive contender from such films as Fool’s Gold and Failure to Launch has vanished and in his place stands a skeletal, sinewy, pale husk of a man, but finally, a true actor. McConaghey literally transformed himself to play Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyer’s Club”, losing fifty pounds for the role.
The film [which had a showing in Fraser Hall on March 6 thanks to AS Productions Films] is based on the life of Woodroof, an electrician and bull rider diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. Woodroof was given thirty days to live and virtually zero options for treatment. But rather than succumb to the disease, he sought out alternative treatments. When they worked, he teamed up with a transgender woman named Rayon [Jared Leto], who's also battling aids, and starts smuggling and distributing a cocktail of remedies to others suffering from the disease.
The film is a window into a terrifying moment in American history. AIDS was a death sentence and a conservative, highly homophobic populace in the United States marginalized the people suffering from it. Woodroof himself displays plenty of anti-gay sentiment from the first minutes of the film. Obviously, AIDS is not a disease exclusive to the queer population [Woodroof contracts it from sleeping with a heroin user], but the film does focuses on its impact within that world and Woodroof’s sudden connection to that struggle.
His diagnosis sparks a transformation that is carefully and honestly portrayed by McConaghey. The dialogue between Woodroof and Rayon is dynamic, and the progress of their friendship is stumbling but steady. At every turn, small victories in the struggle to survive offer moments of hope, but they are quickly snatched away.
The pace of the film is quick, scenes cut extremely fast and there’s the constant feeling that precious time has slipped from the grasp of the heroes. Woodroof becomes a shrewd and aggressive businessman, battling to save the lives of a community that he had mocked and feared, along with his own.
The great villain is the Food and Drug Adminstration, who are charged by the film with favoring the massive handouts from big pharmaceutical corporations over-expediting the process to find and approve new, better drugs to treat HIV and AIDS. It was truly a case of the government ignoring an epidemic out of indifference toward the population being affected. However, the film doesn’t play all that aggressively on the issues of discrimination, instead it definitely feels like one man’s struggle for life.
Therein lies the complicated questions raised by Dallas Buyer’s Club. Some have argued that this is an effort to tell a story that is palatable for a largely straight, cisgender, heterosexist and somewhat homophobic audience; that it maintains a certain master narrative involving the straight, cisgender white guy saving the threatened marginalized community.
I think this is a stretch. It is, perhaps, a valid discussion to have in a sociology seminar somewhere down the line, but to fail to recognize the work that Leto and McConaghey did to humanize the true nature of the epidemic would be a tragedy.
The strength of the film lies in its honesty. There is not a hint of sap or sentimentality. It’s not a film that leaves you feeling especially good. None of the characters are perfect. They are real people full of fear, false hope and bad habits.
But, above all, full of the will to live. That fight is one that we all share, and it’s one that by definition we can’t win. But we sure as hell fight.