Dallas Buyers Club

New to cinemas – 7th February 2014

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8.5

ESSENTIAL

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Dallas Buyers Club is another great example of 2014’s atypical awards season in the same way as 12 Years a Slave, namely that it treats sensitive subject matter with maturity rather than melodrama at a time when everyone’s usually overacting for that golden statuette. It’s true that this is a strong awards season indeed, and approaches like this one show exactly why.

What initially struck me was Jared Leto’s portrayal of the transsexual Rayon. It appears at first that he’s playing up to queer stereotypes in his construction of the character, right down to the effeminate vocal inflections and the mincing walk. Allegations of homophobia were springing to mind and I was fully prepared to dislike the movie on this basis, but Dallas is dealing with larger issues than representations, namely the conflict between AIDs survival and America’s flawed health system.

That Ron (Matthew McConaughey), the protagonist who distributes non-FDA approved medicines to AIDs patients after contracting it himself, is barely ever heard to make a non-homophobic statement to Rayon makes it seem worse. But as the film progresses, it reveals aspects of Rayon’s situation which are truly heartbreaking, though subtle in delivery – a read-between-the-lines conversation that occurs late on between Rayon and hir father is when it becomes clear just what kind of subtlety the film is operating on.

Both leads act coolly but not without a stunning conviction, especially McConaughey who constructs Ron as the stiff upper lip kinda guy while occasionally delivering lines that you could choke on. Leto, a little more forward in his performance, moves his body in a convincingly woman-like way and plays the part with surprising confidence while allowing his character to have that undertone of self-loathing.

The film never blows over or even once seems like it’s going to submit to melodrama. What it does instead is put each character’s problem in your head and then moves on with the story, trusting the audience to empathise with the AIDs patients without having to be repeatedly reminded how tragic things are. That none of the characters are ever subdued by self-pity is Dallas Buyers Club‘s secret weapon; it allows it to give the cast and crew some breathing space in crafting a thoroughly watchable 117 minutes.

But while the subject matter is unpleasant and treated very seriously, I came out of the cinema feeling uplifted rather than depressed. Ron tries to live a hedonistic lifestyle immediately following his diagnosis, but it’s his dedicated optimism and humanitarianism later on in the film that inspires such positivity in the viewer. Like with its attitude towards melodrama, it stays on the safe side of being preachy, and so his actions don’t inspire you to do the same but rather to appreciate life while you still have it. That Dallas Buyers Club succeeds in spite of what it could have been (and nearly was) makes it a worthy contender in this year’s Oscar race, performances especially, and joins the ranks as one of 2013’s best films.

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