Dallas Buyers Club was inspired by the true-story escapades of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texan electrician whose careless habits – smoking, boozing and lots of unprotected sex – catch up with him during the height of the U.S. AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s. Ron begins to experience a series of piercing headaches that cause him to collapse and, eventually, land him in the hospital. There, he is formally diagnosed with having HIV (i.e. the AIDS virus) and is told that he will probably be dead in 30 days.
Once the reality of his circumstances sinks in, Ron proves to have no qualms about the means by which he keeps himself alive, be it smuggling AZT or heading to Mexico in order to get non-FDA-approved medication. Once he realizes that there is an untapped market for alternative treatments (read: those not approved in the U.S.), Ron partners with an HIV-striken transsexual named Rayon (Jared Leto) to create the Dallas Buyers Club: an organization where clients pay for their membership and, in exchange, receive the best HIV medicine/supplements from around the globe.
Much of the buzz for Dallas Buyers Club has been centered around the physical transformations that McConaughey and Leto underwent in order to portray emaciated HIV patients in the film; as opposed to the emotional substance of the actors’ performances or the direction from Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria). Fortunately, McConaughey and Leto’s work here is quite excellent (among their best), which makes the extreme weight loss feel like more than a gimmick. As for the film around them: it’s not so impressive, but decent enough to avoid making their accomplishments for naught.
The script – written by relative newcomer Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack (Mirror Mirror) – offers what feels like a simplified examination of how the 1980s AIDS crisis was only worsened by the FDA’s regulations (and the conflicting interests of the pharmaceutical industry). That larger conflict has relevance in the present-day and is an important component of the film’s overarching narrative, but is also presented in too many shades of black and white for its own good.
Dallas Buyers Club also falls short at putting events and characters’ attitudes into the proper context. What you end up with is a film that unfolds a bit like historical melodrama, where Ron ends up becoming a Robin Hood-type (mind you, a rather amusingly foul-mouthed and lewd one), who is the sole man able – and willing – to lead and inspire the powerless HIV-stricken Dallas community to fight for itself. In his defense, though, Vallée occasionally relies on shot selections and editing choices – he co-edited the film with relative newcomer Martin Pensa – that make the dramatic plot turns feel less awards-baity than they would’ve otherwise.
Fortunately, McConaghey and Leto’s performances are, in turn, engaging, funny and moving enough to sell the whole thing. McConaughey – very much working at the top of his game right now - makes the film’s version of Ron work as someone who is believable as a charming scoundrel, intelligent leader and self-concerned horn dog at any given time. He also doesn’t sugar-coat the man’s crude manners and proclivity for dropping gay epithets (note: those who’re easily offended by homophobic slurs, be warned), even after he begins his journey of spiritual transformation. Indeed, the occasions for dramatic showboating feel all the more authentic, thanks to McConaughey; in short, he’s assured to get an Oscar nod.
Similarly, Leto succeeds in making Rayon convincing as both a real person and someone who embodies the pain and suffering of so many members of the LGBT community back during the height of the U.S. AIDS crisis. The character and her woes – drug addiction, social rejection – are very much a secondary concern in the film when compared to Ron’s personal arc. However, similar to McConaughey, Leto is able to make you forget about his physical appearance and become invested in Rayon on a deeper emotional level.
Jennifer Garner – playing a doctor who befriends Ron and Rayon – isn’t so successful as McConaughey and Leto at overcoming the predictable trajectory of her character’s arc; nonetheless, she has a warm, relatable and endearing screen presence, which is easy to appreciate. The rest of the supporting cast – which includes Steve Zahn (Treme), Denis O’Hare (American Horror Story) and Michael O’Neill (J. Edgar) – is generally solid, even though their characters tend to feel like either underdeveloped footnotes or flat antagonists in the story.
As a whole, Dallas Buyers Club works best as an uplifting viewing experience that showcases McConaughey and Leto’s great performances; not so much an informative and/or thoughtful examination of greater historical issues, through the lens of a more intimate character story. Sometimes, though, all a film needs to avoid being unmemorable – and worth seeing even during the heat of awards season – is a great piece of acting (or two), which is what the cinematic version of Ron Woodroof’s story has to offer.
In case you’re still undecided, here is the trailer for Dallas Buyers Club:
Dallas Buyers Club is now playing in a limited theatrical release, but will continue expanding to more theaters over the upcoming weeks. It is 117 minutes long and Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use.