Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyer’s Club is a relentlessly traditional film. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s screenplay is one of the oldest stories in the book, and they subscribe to the most limited, well-worn version of it. A hard-living, hard-smoking, hard-drinking Texan man, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a relentless Type-A Alpha Male of the classical American persuasion who discovers in 1985 that he is HIV positive. Surrounded by an external culture of unmitigated masculinity and an internal predilection for homophobia, he struggles mightily to come to terms with the diagnosis, weighed on most heavily by his belief that only homosexual men can have HIV (the de facto opinion among the general population in 1985).
Given only a month left to live, he eventually stumbles upon the awareness that an unapproved drug may hold the key to saving his life. As the drug is not allowed by the FDA, he puts his rough-riding anti-government demeanor to use and forms an against-the-grain business trafficking the drug into the country illegally from Mexico. In doing so, as white male movie characters are wont to do, he learns a little about himself, and more about the homosexual culture he once insulted with businesslike casualness and regularity. It is a story as conservative now as it would have been in, well, 1985.
Surely, it deals with a subject that wasn’t common to the movie house in 1985, but it follows a long trend of modern movies that introduce liberal, progressive subject matter into the admittedly self-serving cinematic tradition of paving the way for progress by introducing those progressive subjects into the conversation of old-school inspirational cinema. Very little about Dallas Buyer’s Club – especially its crowd-pleasing second-half – seeks to differentiate itself from hundreds of films that have come and gone before. It is a story about a man coming to terms with himself, and maybe doing his part to save the day in the process. There’s a rough-hewn, individualist, common-man’s redemption story at the center, calculatingly broad and anti-government without ever drawing party lines, and none of this, despite the inclusion of homosexuality to the narrative as a subject matter, is meaningfully challenging the old-school Hollywood tradition.
The best that can be said of Dallas Buyer’s Club is that this man, Ron Woodruff, is a magnetic screen-presence, and being that he is in almost every shot, that is no laughing matter. Played by Matthew McConaughey, Woodruff is a quintessential case of an actor and a role in perfect harmony. Released in 2013, Dallas Buyer’s Club was something of a culmination of a few years of Matthew McConaughey reinventing himself as a challenging, brash performer of idiosyncratic, singular vision. The key is that, although Woodruff is a challenge, it also lies distinctly in McConaughey’s wheelhouse. Following in the footsteps of a diabolical ice-and-oil assassin in Killer Joe, a fire-and-brimstone stripper-ringleader in Magic Mike, and a Southern Gothic drifter in Mud, Woodruff is another character that could only have been played by Matthew McConaughey. It is another in a long line of brutally uncontained, unrestrained Capital-A modern Southern males who speaks like McConaughey, struts like McConaughey, and haunts like McConaughey.
It is a classic case of an actor understanding his screen persona, realizing that an actor is more than “inhabiting a character”. He realizes that an actor is an identity, that he carries with him the baggage of his previous roles and his public persona, that we will innately cotton to McConaughey playing a Southern charmer. An understanding he uses to find directors to play with that identity, and to re-read that identity as, say, a killer, or in Buyer’s Club, a rasping, raucous, even savage Southern cowboy prone to mercurial outbursts. It is easy to see any of Matthew McConaughey’s younger characters, if they were rattled a little, growing up as Ron Woodruff, and that is the fundamental genius of McConaughey as an actor aware of his public identity.
An identity and a performance that lifts Dallas Buyer’s Club beyond its otherwise functional demeanor. Vallee’s direction is more grounded, grainy, and naturalistic than you might expect, which has the effect of making the material out to be livelier than it really is, but it isn’t exactly a case in directorial ambition or auteurism. Largely, it is a quintessential case of a classical Hollywood recipe: “a real-life person + an actor = award glory”. If it never amounts to anything more than the sum of those parts, the one actorly part that forms the backbone of the film is bruised and battered enough to keep the film on the right side of sentimental Oscarbait. He brings the reckless, rebellious hue – equal parts charming and crawling – only McConaughey can bring, and if the film itself isn’t ever the reckless animal it ought to be, it does middlebrow convention proud enough.