TIFF Review: Dallas Buyers Club

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Based on true-life events, Dallas Buyers Club is one of those films that hinges on the strength of the performances. Luckily director Jean-Marc Vallée fills his film with a cast that is more than up for the challenge. If I had not watched 12 Years a Slave prior to this, I would have proclaimed Matthew McConaughey to be an early favourite in the best actor category for next year’s Academy Awards. Though I think Chiwetel Ejiofor is the actor to beat, McConaughey’s chances of a nomination are still rather high considering the exceptional work he does in this film.

In the film McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, an electrician who loves to indulge in plenty of alcohol, cocaine and women. In 1985, Woodroof discovers that he has been diagnosed as HIV-positive and given only thirty days to live. Not willing to go down without a fight, Woodroof learns about a new experimental drug, AZT, which is supposed to help those living with HIV. Being told by his doctor (Jennifer Garner) that he must be a participant in the clinical trials to access the drug, Woodroof uses other means to acquire it.

He soon discovers that, although being supported by both the FDA and pharmaceutical companies, AZT is actually making its users worse. After a trip to Mexico opens his eyes to other forms of treatment, made from natural sources, Woodroof devises a plan to smuggle the medication across the border and sell them to those in need. With the help of a transgender woman named Rayon (Jared Leto), Woodroof sets up the Dallas Buyers Club in which customers pay a membership fee to get access to all the medication they need.

Dallas Buyers Club is one of those David versus Goliath tales in which one man attempts to take on a billion dollar industry. The film questions what is more important: saving a life or adhering to rules that are clearly designed to protect businesses? In this case the businesses are the pharmaceutical companies who only have their own financial interest in mind. Vallée does an excellent job of showing how the FDA, a government agency responsible for promoting and protecting public health, has blurred the lines of their role. They have become enforcers and bullies for the pharmaceutical companies rather than regulators of them.

Vallée succeeds in getting his message across in part due to the wonderful casting. McConaughey and Leto are fantastic in the film. They give themselves over to their roles both physically and emotionally. Considering that AIDS was commonly associated with homosexuality during that time, McConaughey and Leto help to show Woodroof’s growth from bigot to advocate. Even Garner is allowed to showcase her ability in several strong scenes. If it was not for the great performances, and Vallée’s skilled direction, the film could have fallen into the sentimental Oscar-baiting abyss that others in this genre have fallen into. Fortunately Dallas Buyers Club soars above conventional trappings and reminds us that every voice can make a difference.