It's a Buyer's Market
On first sight it’s hard to understand why Dallas Buyers Club had such a long gestation. On paper it has all the elements proven to resonate with audiences; a stress tested template. It pits a character against the establishment, in doing so it provides them with a redemptive arc and it has a serious, award baiting subject matter. But it’s the latter that explains the financers’ reluctance. That subject is AIDS, the second least favourite topic in Hollywood after Scientology. American cinema’s treatment of the subject, no pun intended, has veered from the tepid (Philadelphia) to the invisible. Jean-Marc Vallee’s film is a great deal more matter-of-fact however, and takes a risk depicting a historic character who starts off every bit as bigoted, hateful and soft-minded as a Hollywood executive before entering a chrysalis of empathy and emerging a liberal.
Matthew McConaughey’s performance, as the Texan oil worker and “man’s man” who discovers he’s contracted HIV but is denied treatment on the grounds he’s too ill to be worthy of experimental medication, is notable not just for his physical transformation, though this is very stark indeed, but his character’s subtle and nuanced shift from a grandstanding, gay hating, hardon to a shrewd, learned businessman with a social conscience. Nothing it seems, radicalises the latent humanity in people like life truncated. It’s a fascinating trajectory for this buckaroo and McConaughey sells it with absolute conviction. A story like this could easily be upended using crass didactism, finger wagging and trite sentimentality but Vallee and his hard working star keep the wolf from the door.
This, of course, isn’t just a story about struggling with HIV/AIDS and the poor treatment available in the formative years of the epidemic; it’s a good fashioned tale of moneyed interests infecting the medical establishment; a not so subtle reminder that what Americans crudely and inaccurately call socialised medicine, is in fact a necessary and vital bulwark against the market meddling in medical treatment. Woodruff’s battle with the Federal Drug Administration speaks to this in a way that’s vivid and moving. Watching a former bigot strike up a friendship with a transgender humanoid (wonderfully played by Jared Leto) and unite around this principle is both supremely satisfying and a worthy tribute to a brave man who dared to challenge his own prejudices as well as the vested interests in the American health care system.