It’s the mid-eighties, and we first meet a sweating Woodroof getting down and dirty with two members of the opposite sex in a rodeo stall – designed, it would seem, to illustrate the moment Ron became infected with the HIV virus. An electrician by trade but more commonly labelled a drunk, drug addict and small-time gambler, after one too many heavy nights Woodroof awakens to find himself in hospital, where he’s informed by kindly physician Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) that he’s tested positive for HIV and has just thirty days to live. On discovering that the largely untested AZT (azidothymidine) is actually harming those it claims to help, Woodroof founds the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, where the Aids-afflicted may sign up for non FDA-approved drugs, all for a ‘reasonable’ monthly fee of just $400.
Alongside the eye-catching McConaughey – who shed over three stone for the role – is actor/rock star Jared Leto as Ron’s transsexual business partner Rayon, another Aids victim with entrepreneurial flair but also a growing addiction to cocaine and other Class A narcotics. It’s on these two central performances that Dallas Buyers Club ultimately hangs, and so it’s telling that the accolades it received during silly season was almost exclusively for its male stars. Garner is largely wasted in what is very much a supporting role, whilst Woodroof’s growing army of Buyers Club members are barely introduced, save for an elderly couple who donate their house to the cause. Perpetually positioned – like Ron – as a bemused outsider looking in, the film’s gay characters are reduced to walking dollar signs, led by desperation to seek out a saviour who may not necessarily have their best interests at heart.
Where does Dallas Buyers Club sit in terms of the McConnaisance? McConaughey gives all he’s got in the lead role, moving between insidious hick and messianic merchant with an almost overwhelming ease. His Woodroof dominates every scene he’s in, so much so that Garner’s ‘insider’s view’ parallel story of rebellion in the medical ranks in the face of ‘Big Pharma’ never truly gets going – more’s the pity. Whereas a Soderbergh may well have eschewed headline-grabbing lead turns for a more clinical, procedural approach to a distinctly murky period in American pharmaceutical history – and its catastrophic effect on the gay community – Vallée discards with facts and figures in favour of bull-riding and bombast. The Academy may have lauded McConaughey and company’s undoubted talents, but there’s something altogether insubstantial about this most extroverted of indies.