Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Dallas Buyers Club

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 16th February 2014

Jean-Marc Vallée, director of the underrated French film Café de Flore but probably better known for casting Emily Blunt as The Young Victoria, seems to be forging one of those eclectic careers exhibited by the likes of Michael Winterbottom and Ang Lee. Filmmakers who tackle different genres for each project are to be applauded, and indeed Vallée’s first proper stab at Hollywood awards bait is extremely accomplished.

It helps somewhat that he lucked out in casting Matthew McConaughey in the lead role of Rob Woodroof, a boozing, womanising rodeo rider who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the mid 80s, when AIDS was still a dirty word and ignorance was endemic. (In the 20 years since the film was originally mooted, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt have been eyed up for the role which now seems made for McConaughey.)

Far from an “addiction drama”, the film in fact charts Woodroof’s true-life story of a man given 30 days to put his affairs in order who instead decides to fight. Not just his personal battle – although McConaughey famously lost over 20 kg for the role (he is so emaciated he has almost permanent dimples – when people say “painfully thin” they mean it hurts to look at him) and is simply mesmerising in every scene – but his attempts to secure unapproved pharmaceutical drugs for the benefit of all HIV patients.

McConaughey has a good shot at snaking off with the Oscar next month (both he and co-star Jared Leto have already won the Golden Globes for Best Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively). His performance capitalises on the McConaughey we’ve seen more and more in recent years, with standouts such as Magic Mike, Killer Joe and even his cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street all something of a rehearsal for his role as the outlandish Woodroof.

He’s a curious hero, physically disturbing yet undeniably charismatic, but while some pundits have expressed reservations about the writers’ bending of Woodroof’s real-life persona, it sure makes for great cinema. Similarly, Leto’s fictional creation of the transgendered Rayon is a delight to behold, as convincingly female (or, at least, definitively not Leto) as Jennifer Garner’s comparatively plain doctor.

The story moves rapidly through a countdown of Woodroof’s last days, the grim opening transforming swiftly into a heartwarming, inspiring tale of an underdog with a purpose and bucketloads of chutzpah. It reminds us of the horrifying prejudice routinely exhibited three decades ago, and makes us glad we’ve come so far. But above all, thanks to energetic camerawork and gutsy performances, it’s one helluva ride.

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