The West

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey. Picture: Anne Marie Fox

The Dallas Buyers Club (M)
4.5 stars
Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner

The late American economist Milton Friedman probably never donned a muscle shirt and marched in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. However, if The Dallas Buyers Club is to be believed, Friedman's free-market philosophy went down well with the embattled gay community during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Rather than another worthy, sentimental AIDS-era tearjerker, Dallas Buyers Club tells the astonishing true story of homophobic Texas hellraiser Ron Woodroof who, after learning he is HIV-positive, becomes the gay community's unlikeliest hero by setting out to save his own neck.

Indeed, Woodroof, who is played by a startlingly slimmed-down Matthew McConaughey in the finest performance of his career, is the latest in a long line of movie heroes whose journey towards becoming a better man begins with self-interest (Oskar Schindler is another who comes to mind).

It's also a wonderfully oddball way into a familiar story, both a chilling refresher on a disease that killed hundreds of thousands of mostly gay men during the 1980s and a surprisingly upbeat and optimistic celebration of a seriously stunted man's evolution into a decent human being.

We first meet electrician and part-time rodeo rider Woodroof having a coke-fuelled three-way with two trashy babes in a holding pen while watching another rider being gored by a bull. It's a snapshot of ecstasy and doom, sex and death blurred into a single disturbing image.

The place is Texas and the year is 1985, which is signalled by Ron making shockingly homophobic remarks about actor Rock Hudson.

"It's a shame, ain't it," as he looks over a news report of Hudson entering a Paris hospital. "All that fine Hollywood pussy being wasted."

After Woodroof suffers a minor accident at work he's taken to hospital where it is revealed that he's HIV-positive and that he only has a month to live. Not surprisingly, he interprets the report of the doctors (Ron O'Hare and Jennifer Garner) as a slur on his raging cowboy heterosexuality.

After another bout of hard partying - the scenes in which the AIDS-infected Ron has sex with unsuspecting women are disturbing and a measure of his selfishness and ignorance - Woodroof sets about researching the virus and eventually buys dozens of vials of the experimental drug AZT from a corrupt hospital worker.

When that fails to stop the progress of the disease, Woodroof takes control of his own treatment, travelling across the border to Mexico and putting himself in the care of an unlicensed American doctor (Griffin Dunne) who is getting good results with alternative medicines.

It's in Mexico that Woodroof has his light-bulb moment, realising that he can fund his own treatment by selling drugs that have not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to similarly afflicted men and women.

Thus begins the giddy second half of Dallas Buyers Club in which Woodroof becomes an unlikely AIDS-era entrepreneur, cleaning up his redneck act to become both an amateur scientist researching the latest treatments and starting a buyers club to get around FDA restrictions.

The film has been made on a shoestring but French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (C.R.A.Z.Y., Cafe de Flore) has a great eye and gives the film a jumpy, energetic, improvised feel that is perfectly in sync with the rapidly evolving consciousness of Woodroof.

It works because his stars McConaughey and Jared Leto, who plays a drug-addicted transsexual who Ron meets in hospital and becomes his assistant in flouting laws to get drugs to sufferers, rise to the occasion, playing characters from different worlds who manage to forge a weird, wonderful odd-couple bond.

Part-time actor Leto (he's better known as a rock star) pushes through the stereotype of the effete outsider to give us a wonderful portrait of a man with a beautiful soul who doesn't have the strength to handle the rigours and restrictions of the American medical system.

But Dallas Buyers Club belongs to McConaughey who hangs on to the essence of his character - a trash-talking, skirt- chasing party animal - even through the process of becoming a saint to the gay community, defying the rulings of the heartless FDA officers to give hope to those infected with HIV.

McConaughey and this gloriously alive movie do not sentimentalise Woodroof, with the softening of his attitude toward Leto's Rayon and the other AIDS sufferers coming in the most imperceptible increments.

But Dallas Buyers Club is not all about flashy performances. It's also a gripping, surprisingly entertaining examination of American institutions and their inability to deal with a crisis in their midst and an indictment of slow-moving, politically motivated bureaucracy that Milton Friedman should have attacked when he was working for Ronald Reagan.

The West Australian

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