8 February 2014 | bob the moo
Consistent and engaging story told with a strong lead performance and a refreshing lack of sentimentality
This film came to the UK with the usual awards hype that seems to accompany any number of bigger films that are released around this time, but I had made an effort to avoid it and didn't know too much about it other than McConaughey being talked up about his performance. Indeed I had ignored it as much as I could and to the point where I really knew the barebones of the plot – which was to say it was a true story of a guy who got HIV and, frustrated by the lack of medical treatment at the time, decided to start running effective drugs unapproved by the FDA across the Mexican border into the US. With this very basic grasp I did worry that the film would be sentimental, making a hero of the main character, playing up the plight of the infected and generally being the sort of film they wheel out for awards at this time of year, ticking all the topics off that gets voters onboard.
Happily the truth is that, although there is an element of this, the film doesn't overplay to this side of its nature and instead delivers a remarkable straight telling without too much excess. The character of Ron is a hustler first and everything else second and this doesn't change once he finally gets through the "bargaining, anger, denial, acceptance" stages of his diagnosis. As a result his efforts to bring in the drugs are not done out of some selfless act of wanting to help others as he prepares to meet his maker, but rather as part of his own fight for life he hits on a scheme to make money – and for the majority of the film this is the case. This central truth to the character really works to rob the film of sentimentality of him and therefore of the wider situation and it makes for a better film because we are engaged because we are interested rather than becomes a sweeping musical score or "Oscar clip" moment tells us to feel something. It does still do this and it does still bring out the sense of people struggling to live while the structure supposed to help them does little about it, but it does so in a way that is refreshingly free of smaltz.
Although this is a strength, it should also be said that the film doesn't manage to bring it all together as well as it should given the subject matter. It just feels like it falls a few steps short of greatness in terms really delivering an emotional punch that informs on the individual and the bigger picture at the same time – it does do this, but it is more consistent rather than building to this. Despite this it still works and although it lacks these real highs of delivery, it was functional and successful and I appreciated the lack of easy sentiment. The performances match this and in particular McConaughey gets the tone of the film and by return sets it. He is great, not because of the weight loss but because he delivers an unsympathetic character and convinces as him whether he is raging in denial, hustling or hurting. He is the heart of the film and it works as well as it works thanks a lot to him. The support characters are never more than supporting though, but of course Leto is strong in his role – not because he cross-dresses, but because he is the character and he makes Rayon about much more than the appearance. Zahn, Garner, O'Neill, Dunne and other recognizable faces all do solid work but primarily this is McConaughey's film.
Dallas Buyers Club may not be perfect but it is consistent and it is engaging. I appreciate that it never resorts to easy smaltz or cheap sentimentality and it seems perfectly fine with its flawed character being flawed throughout the film. It is a well told story which links well from the individual's story into the bigger picture, even if it doesn't quite impact at that level as it could have done. Within the solid and effective frame of this story, McConaughey then seals the deal with a really strong lead performance as he takes yet another massive leap away from being that guy leaning against the title on the bus poster.