Firstly, let’s get this out of the way: Matthew MConaughey and Jared Leto can have all the awards – it’s their performances that lift Dallas Buyers Club out of soap opera territory into something special. The story is based on the life of Ron Woodroof, a macho Texan who was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid 80s and given 30 days to live. It’s fair to point out that there’s a lot of hoo-hah about how loosely based the story actually is – some artistic licence has been taken with major elements of Ron’s story. Does that matter? Not really, although the real truth is slightly more interesting (google it) and might have made for an even better film. Either way, McConaughey does him justice here in a role that he inhabits like some sort of glorious moustachioed python.
The AIDS epidemic terrified people in these early days – it’s easy to forget that it was in essence a death sentence, treatment was sporadic and ineffective, and the focus was more on prevention than cure. For those diagnosed in these early years there really was no hope. But Woodroof looks his last 30 days in the eye and decides that won’t do for him so after one last binge, spends most of those days researching drugs that might help him live a bit longer. And he finds them, care of an exiled doctor in Mexico whose advice and medication literally give Ron a new lease of life. (Full disclosure, for a minute or two I thought the doctor was Colin Farrell and was amazed at the improvement in his acting skills. It’s Griffin Dunne of course.)
Once he realises the treatment is having an effect – and Woodroof lives for seven more years – he becomes outraged at the fact that the FDA had refused to licence most of the drugs that were helping him and starts to import them in some quantity, selling them on to other HIV patients, mainly gay men. And to help him gain their confidence, who better than Rayon – a striking transgender woman he meets in hospital (Jared Leto). The two forge a Hollywood cliche style unlikely alliance (Ron is portrayed as a rampant homophobe as well as a bit of an arse) and after a few brushes with the law, set up a buyers club which members pay a subscription to join then get their drugs for free.
The queues are round the block, much to the fury of his medical team. Only one doctor, the supremely drippy Dr Saks (Jennifer Garner) takes any notice at all of the fact that the drugs are actually working, but she doesn’t do much about it. It’s this role that for me gave a little insight into what a turgid do-gooding bore this film might have been without McConaughey and Leto – there’s no real point to it, other than to say oh by the way not all doctors are bad. So as I said, let them have all the awards, in a great big bag with a pink bow on it and a quart of bourbon in the bottom.
PS anyone who knows me will know that the dropped apostrophe in the title PAINS ME
As the credits rolled on Scorsese’s latest, I did something I don’t believe I have ever done before in the cinema. I winked at the screen. Winked. It was a completely involuntary reaction to what is essentially three hours of splendidly naughty fun. I bloody loved it.
Leonardo DiCaprio is in his element here – giving one of his best performances as Wall Street bigwig Jordan Belfort whose life Scorsese has captured in all its excessive, sexist and utterly grotesque glory. He’s a bit like a cartoon baddie, blasting his way through the film with his tail on fire, leaving a trail of dirty doings behind him, entirely unrepentant. He’s a bad man, surrounded by other bad men and some quite bad women too. They’re all having a ball, especially Belfort’s closest ally Donnie Azoff, (an also superb Jonah Hill) a man who can’t believe the way his life has turned out and fully intends to make the most of it while it lasts. Both actors deserve all the plaudits they’ve been receiving – they go all out here, but stay just the right side of caricature. Which is no mean feat, given that much of the film is out and out comedy.
DiCaprio and Hill steal the film, but there’s also a blistering Matthew McConaughey cameo, the divine Jean Dujardin pops up as a smarmy Swiss banker and there’s a slightly bizarre appearance from Joanna Lumley in a London straight off a 60s postcard. There are other women here too of course, who look nice but are somewhere on the outskirts of the story. Nothing here to match Lorraine Bracco or Sharon Stone’s gutsy roles, the women really are just eye candy. But that’s Belfort’s world, am not sure it is unavoidable – and this is based on his autobiography of course, so you know, it’s all about him and his idealised memories of the high life.
Belfort made his fortune by selling penny shares to people who couldn’t really afford them, his morals left in the box he cleared his Wall Street desk with on Black Monday. As his wealth and business grow, so did his ego – so much so that he failed to cover his back until it’s too late. But even when he’s down he’s not entirely out – there’s no crime doesn’t pay moral here, it clearly does sometimes.
But don’t misjudge Scorsese, he knows a thing or two about giving his audience a kick in the guts, and it comes here too right at the end in a scene on the subway with the FBI agent that finally nailed Belfort (a beautifully calm performance from Kyle Chandler). Of everything I saw over the three hours, this was the scene that stayed with me and prompted a sudden prick of tears. It’s that moment of truth that makes this such a great film – a jolting reminder of the people who paid for whatever Belfort stuck up his nose (or up a hooker’s bottom… imagine the casting call for that role).
So yes, I winked at the end. And a great big salacious wink it was too, this is a balls out, wave your willy about joy.
As nicknames go, Mud isn’t a great one, but it fits Matthew McConaughey’s slightly soiled fugitive perfectly. He’s hiding out on an island on the Mississippi river, shacked up in an old boat that two 14-year-old boys had planned to make their own (which happens to be up a tree). To the boys, Mud is a character straight from a book – full of exaggerated stories, spouting myth and legend, who comes with a large element of danger plus a star-crossed lover. The boys are too swept away by his stories to see the slightly disappointing truth – that Mud is a man chased by a dark history and full of tall tales. His connection to another mysterious river-dweller (an also suitably grizzled looking Sam Shepard) only adds to his allure.
The two boys both have disrupted home lives. Ellis (Ida Sheridan) is caught between parents who are splitting up and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) lives with his slightly bonkers uncle (Michael Shannon, playing an uncharacteristically genial role). Both are struggling to understand what love is, and when Mud reveals his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) is on her way to meet up with him, Ellis in particular is so entranced with the romance of it all that he gets more involved with Mud’s shenanigans than he should.
Jeff Nichols’ third feature, following the excellent Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Mud is made with obvious affection for the area and its people, and has great performances all round, particularly from McConaughey and Sheridan who are superb. With echoes of Stand By Me and Huck Finn, it’s a film that most of all shines with love.