It seems apt that we’re introduced to The Dallas Buyers Club’s main character, Ron Woodroof, through the art of bull-riding. On the surface, it is a visceral, brutal and fool-hardy activity that serves only those who want the rush of a sport dunked in testosterone and sweat. Many discount the bull as nothing more than a frill, a fancy, as entertainment. It simply exists and therefore should be used as cruelly as humans see fit. However, beneath the surface, hidden amidst masculine bravado, there is an aptness to the relationship between Ron’s immediate perception of bull-riding and his eventual evolution towards acceptance of homosexuality and transgenderism. Like Ron, we all fear that which we don’t wholly understand and it’s only through peering into antithetical perspectives that we can begin to tear away at senseless social conventions.
It seems strange to be talking about a character performance by Matthew McConaughey. Years of romantic comedies clog up his somewhat underwhelming film résumé, one that has recently come to see an exciting reinvention. People proclaim this period of world history not as one determined by innovation in technology but by the McConaughey Renaissance. Perhaps it was all a façade in which to captivate us once our guards were down, or maybe a trick devised by his agents, but, fortunately, it has culminated in an extraordinary performance, portraying Woodroof’s life with a realistic conviction.
Woodroof, initially a homophobic waste of a man, sees a transition of the self after he is diagnosed with AIDS by Dr. Eve Saks, played with an exact precision by Jennifer Garner. His philandering and misogynistic ways naturally catch up with him; due to the lack of information broaching the subject of straight males and AIDS, many of the townsfolk, already homophobic themselves, designate this illness as that belonging to homosexuals. McConaughey exudes from his person a performance which personifies the way in which a reaction can never be truly predetermined until experienced. Not only is his journey as an actor a physical transformation, shedding pounds for the role, but his performance works in kilter with Woodroof’s mental transformation. Where he had a fixed perspective prior to the illness – the moment where he is told by the doctors is his mental awakening – Ron has to re-evaluate and he does that through a distinct change in attitude, one that he won’t fully comprehend until much later in the film.
Enter Rayon, a transgender woman. She exemplifies exactly that which Ron had found so grotesque and their interaction serves as a humorous rendition of Beauty and the Beast, in which Rayon turns the stereotype on its head and forces a realisation that the Beast might actually be the Beauty. Jared Leto portrays this highly competent, sweet and flirtatious character with real humanity. Leto, best known for his work in Requiem for a Dream and Mr. Nobody demonstrates a quiet powerfulness, one that provides his character with the gravitas to fill every scene that she is in. Whether that gravitas manifests itself in the form of humour or poignancy doesn’t matter here, for ultimately, the goal is to highlight both the pluckiness and turbulence of someone ostracised from mainstream society.
It should come as no surprise therefore that the burgeoning relationship that develops between the two main characters is integral to the success of The Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey and Leto utterly bewitch us when they are both in view of the camera. Both have given an awful lot to the roles and you feel, as a viewer, that they’ve managed to almost entirely encapsulate their characters, highlighting the blemishes and defections of two human-beings, but also the bright, individual attributes. Ron and Rayon work as characters because they allow us to see every side of the equation. Ron starts as entirely antagonistic towards anybody different to him, but Rayon allows him access to the proverbial mirror that gives him back a fervent desire to better himself and, in the process, empower others.
Woodroof may spend long periods trying desperately to find sources for off-limits drugs to relieve him of his pains, but Rayon is his real relief. She enters his life at a crucial point and challenges him – in her own wonderfully vivacious way – to look beyond what society has taught him. Whilst The Dallas Buyers Club is a community set up to aid those who live in similar predicaments, it’s arguable that the importance of simply having a group to talk with takes complete precedence. Yes, this is a film in which the main character strikes out against idiotic laws and regulations, but it’s also a true testament to the power of the human spirit and the accomplishments people can achieve once their eyes have been opened.
Due to the inherent thematic notions of the film, the cinematography does get left in the lurch somewhat. In many ways, it’s a bit of a shame; whilst Jean-Marc Vallée’s use of natural colour and his juxtaposition of dreariness and brightness of tone are exemplary, the technical side never really accentuates the performances; moreso, it exists to allow a progression of characterisation. However, does a film with this magnitude of affection cast to its characters even need flawless cinematography? Probably not. Such is the nature of the film, that it might be better served by not leaning towards the esoteric or alternative stylistic qualities of other directors. You don’t want to overshadow the enthralling and sophisticated performances of McConaughey and Leto by having attention turned elsewhere. For that very reason, Vallée’s simplicity with camera is a shrewd, splendid move.
The Dallas Buyers Club is a truly inspiring film. Ron Woodroof is a character that manages to be both menacing and meek. He balances the line between misogyny, homophobia and liberal acceptance of others horrendously, until a fateful act and a remarkable woman – one who just happens to be transgender – enter his life to test his preconceptions. This is a journey of real integrity and Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto form a connection that highlights the natural talents of a good actor and the pains a great one will go to further develop a character.
It’s apt that towards the end of the film Ron returns to the bull-riding arena. He has become the bull, tormented and persecuted, but unlike the bull, which will serve its existence tethered to the pants of some irrelevant rider, Ron has been allowed a certain freedom by acquiring the presence and alternative mindset of someone who betrays all his initial, skewed values. To have our fixed social constructs broken by the most unlikely of sources is grounds for an absolute and unabridged poignancy.