Watching Dallas Buyers Club transported me back to those 1970s days when Hollywood routinely offered hard-edged narratives rooted in recognisable communities. Or perhaps on second thoughts it is more akin to some of the gay-themed dramas of the 1980s. Most of the writing on the film seems to have focused on the performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto that won Academy Awards. Yes they are both extraordinary (in the “what will an actor do for the sake of authenticity in the part” stakes) and very effective in helping to construct a human drama. They certainly merited awards but this film is much more than just those two performances. In particular, praise should go to the scriptwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack and to Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter who got this complicated true story into production – and to the highly-skilled Montreal crew who shot it for Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée.
For anyone still unaware of this story, it details how an ‘ordinary guy’ in Texas in 1985 contracted the HIV virus (presumably through sharing needles or sexual contact with women who had bisexual partners) but instead of succumbing to AIDS and the various diseases that attack when the immune system is down, he fought back and lived for seven years after diagnosis. The notable aspects of the story are that Ron Woodruff (in the filmic representation – I don’t know how authentic McConaughey’s character is) educated himself about the drug research into HIV/AIDS and that he then organised a local network to support others in a similar position. And what is remarkable is that Woodruff who had been casually homophobic and generally dissolute in his social behaviour was able to change and to accept gay people as his friends. At the same time he was able to fight the Federal Drugs Administration that threatened to close down his business importing anti-viral drugs into the US. It isn’t a romantic story about a noble sufferer – Woodruff initially ran a business and made good money in order to support himself before widening his concerns.
The film isn’t a documentary, it’s a personal story. I think that because of that distinction audiences are prepared to overlook the holes in the script – e.g. the almost magical way in which a man who is presented as barely capable of organising his kitchen can become an effective researcher (and international business operator) seemingly overnight is skipped over very quickly. A common criticism of the film has been that the role of the doctor played by Jennifer Garner is very restricted. I didn’t feel that but for me the more important lack was any kind of background given to the remarkably calm and efficient African-American woman who ran Woodruff’s office and dealt with many of its clients/’members’ etc. Unless I missed something she seems to just appear and take over. Having said that, the film is action-packed and doesn’t waste any of its running time. The transgender character played by Jared Leto has been created for the film adaptation (as has I think the Jennifer Garner character). The two new characters offer a more audience-friendly means of exploring Woodruff’s predicament and his emotional state – i.e. they enable the scriptwriters to explore relationships rather than focus the whole time on Woodruff’s struggle to build and maintain the ‘Club’ of people he helps to obtain anti-virals.
The film works because of the combination of direction, performances and camerawork/mise en scène. There is a useful collection of notes on the Focus Features website for the film. I was particularly keen to read the thoughts of Jean-Marc Vallé as it was my enjoyment of his film C.R.A.Z.Y (Canada 2005) which propelled me into watching Dallas Buyers Club. Vallée tells us that his inspiration was John Cassavetes and the ‘free’ – liberated – camerawork on his independent features in the 1960s and 1970s. Dallas Buyers Club was shot in just 25 days using an Alexa digital camera and, as far as possible, only available light. This meant long days shooting (with long make-up sessions for Leto and McConaughey) but allowed great freedom of movement. In the same Focus Features editorial piece there is also an interesting discussion with the costume designers ‘Kurt and Bart’. Overall the look of the film seemed to me to work very well and certainly evoked its period setting much more successfully than American Hustle. I realise that the comparison is not completely valid since they are two very different types of film. All I can say is that where American Hustle made me fume, Dallas Buyers Club was a very positive viewing experience.