Rates: * * * 1/2
Ron Woodruff (Mathew McConaughey) lives life in the moment.
On the outskirts of Dallas he scratches out a meager, but seemingly satisfying, existence. He works as a casual electrician, lives in a run down mobile home, hustles up a few extra bucks from the rodeo and consumes a cornucopia of toxic substances for fun. He's a genial character for the most part, but also sports a short temper and deeply ingrained homophobia, traits shared by most of the pack he runs with.
Ron also sleeps around and, as he lives in the mid 1980's, this puts him in the path of a mysterious new illness. AIDS has come to America and the crushing effects of this incurable disease are only just starting to be felt. Ron and his friends read about AIDS in the local paper, but consider themselves far removed from any reality where this disease could manifest itself. There is no place for AIDS in staunchly conservative, staunchly heterosexual, middle America.
So when a work accident lands Ron in hospital, he is shocked beyond shock to be told that a routine blood test has revealed he has this terrifying affliction. The doctor tells him (ridiculously callously, so setting up his role as one of the movie's villains) that there is no cure, no available treatment and that he has 30 days to live.
Sentenced to death, Ron passes through various emotional stages in the ensuing days; denial, anger, frustration, despair. And finally hope, when he hears about an experimental treatment for AIDS, the drug AZT. But AZT is not approved for general consumption - it's confined to tightly controlled test groups - and when Ron's efforts to find a regular supply are thwarted, he begins to explore more unorthodox options.
His research takes him to Mexico, Japan, Europe and anywhere else he can find any sort of substance that may prolong his life. He starts shipping these exotic compounds back to the States and selling them on to other sick, desperate people who have run out of options. To circumvent US legal restrictions, Ron sets up the Club of the title, so that what he is actually selling is membership, not meds. The hook is that many of his customers are gay, which forces Ron to confront his prejudices...
... and you can probably guess the rest. Ron learns a few things and becomes a better, broader person, there's some heartache and the Government and Big Pharma are cast in a poor light before a suitably downbeat ending. Groundbreaking this movie ain't.
But what it is, is a vehicle for its star, and Mathew McConaughey has earnt all of the raves and awards that he has accumulated to date. His lead performance here is nothing other than incandescent, lighting up every scene he appears in (most of them) with seemingly effortless brilliance.
Ron Woodruff is a charismatic, flamboyant character, and a drawling Southerner to boot, and so any portrayal of him risks the imprint of caricature. But McConaughey avoids this and simply seems to inhabit his skin, so entirely convincing that you forget you are watching a performance at all. The character he creates is equal parts bluster, bonhomie and bigot, with these different facets appearing at unexpected, and often inappropriate, times. The humanity of this combination is entirely compelling.
But McConaughey is so good, that the rest of the movie almost suffers by comparison.
After a nicely textured opening - Ron's life and world are deftly sketched in a few scenes - the film's style soon settles to earnest afternoon TV melodrama. The simple story is set in motion and then gently left to unwind by rote. You've got the boo-hiss villains (the aforementioned doctor and a gormless, mustachioed twit from the Federal Drug Administration), the cute and kindly lady doctor (a mediocre Jennifer Garner) and some representatives from Dallas' gay underground (all variations on some well worn stereotypes).
One of these is Rayon, a transvestite portrayed by Jared Leto, who has received some raves and an Oscar nomination for his efforts. While Leto's performance is sincere, and shows some craft, the character he plays is really no more that a campy cliche, replete with squeaky voice and overblown emotions. It's a flashy part, but empty. As a foil for Ron, this could only be a disappointment.
The film puts its characters into conflict and seems to want to make some points about the ills of society; individual rights stifled by bureaucracy, the power of money to buy influence, the deadly toll of prejudice. But ultimately, these issues are only dealt with in a superficial way, and none of this simplistic moralising has any real resonance.
Which doesn't really matter, as long as Ron/McConaughey is readily on hand.
DBC is an entertaining, middle ground movie with one very obvious standout. Catching the central performance is the reason to see this film, and it is well worth it. McConaughey has ound form late in his career and is at the very height of his powers here. You wonder what else he is capable of, while you wonder at his portrayal. Anything else that take away from this will be a bit of a bonus.