Dallas Buyers Club (2013 Focus Features)
In 1985 Dallas, electrician and hustler Ron Woodroof works around the system to help AIDS patients get the medication they need after he is himself diagnosed with the disease.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Written by Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack. Produced by Robbie Brenner, Nathan Ross, Rachel Rothman.
When the AIDS epidemic began to spread in the early/mid-1980s, it was a frightening time for people, especially the gay community. AIDS and HIV were considered death sentences. To top it off, a reticent federal government and overall stigma attached to the disease as a “gay plague” led to a general misunderstanding of the disease. This is the backdrop of Dallas Buyers Club, which centers in on Ron Woodroof, a typical, Texas good ol’ boy. He loves the rodeo, chasing women and partying with his friends. But even the untrained eye can look at Ron and notice something is physically wrong with him, even if he doesn’t realize it. An unexpected visit to the hospital turns up the grave news for Ron. He has HIV and only has a short time left to live.
But this is just the beginning of the story. Where Ron goes from here is on an unexpected journey of survival, selflessness and an exploration of his own, homophobic mindset. Matthew McConaughey is barely recognizable as Ron, a frighteningly skinny, clammy, sick man. McConaughey is absorbed into the character and becomes Ron. For a man with lead man good looks and a penchant for going shirtless in his films, McConaughey is clearly not settling for cheesy, beefcake roles. He continues to make the case he’s the best American actor in the business right now. His performance in Dallas Buyers Club certainly makes that case.
Ron’s metamorphoses from a partying drifter to driven HIV/AIDS activist includes befriending fellow HIV+ patient, Rayonn, whom he meets during a hospital visit. Initially disgusted with Rayonn, who is transgender, Ron only warms up to her as she is part of an AZT trial. They forge a bond out of Ron’s opportunism, but it becomes more complex, heartfelt and life altering. As Rayonn, Jared Leto is mesmerizing. Rayonn is a worthy foil to Ron’s bigotry as she antagonizes, cajoles and ultimately educates Ron. Leto brings a sadness and authentic vulnerability out of his character that is, at times, difficult to watch. It’s difficult because it’s evident this is the sad reality for so many who are gay and/or have been afflicted with HIV and AIDS. Quite simply, Leto was brilliant.
But Dallas Buyers Club is not just a character study. At its heart, it is a Big Government vs. The Little Guy story. Ron questions the doctors, questions the health system, questions big pharma and questions AZT. Quite a transformation for a guy who, previous to his HIV+ diagnosis, care only about scoring coke, hustling for cash and scoring women. As his doctor, Jennifer Garner represents the health system Ron is questioning and trying to convince needs to change to battle this disease. Garner turns in a fine performance, but ultimately is overshadowed by McConaughey and Leto, who obviously have much weightier roles.
The performances are the centerpiece, but credit director Jean-Marc Vallée for keeping the balance between the personal journey and the bigger picture. This film will likely rip open old wounds—especially for those who lived through it in the 80s—but it doesn’t beat people over the head with a political agenda. Dallas Buyers Club stays true to its core and never succumbs to sappy gimmicks to swindle its audience.
It’s a great story about desperation, survival, understanding and, ultimately, tolerance.
RATING: **** (out of 5)