Some actors are the very same character in every movie. Think John Wayne or Cary Grant, George Clooney or Denzel Washington. It’s not that they lack range, it’s just that they don’t demonstrate it through either their choice of roles or how they choose to play the character. Dallas Buyers Club demonstrates the opposite, with Matthew McConaughey delivering a superb, Oscar-worthy performance as rodeo cowboy, two-bit hustler and unlikely AIDS activist Ron Woodroof.
The film takes place in the mid 1980s when AIDS and HIV was seen as a “gay disease”, though one in five infected were not gay at the time. Woodroof is a bigot, having casual, unprotected sex with a variety of women without a thought for consequences. After falling ill, he’s taken to a Dallas hospital where physicians tell him that they’ve tested his blood and found that his t-cell count is incredibly low: 9, when it should be 500 or more. He’s HIV positive and is told by Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) that he maybe has 30 days to live and needs to get his affairs in order.
Fellow physician Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) is considerably more sympathetic than the unemotional, conservative Dr. Sevard, and after threatening to beat the daylights out of Sevard for accusing him of having “that f’ing faggot disease” and storming out of the hospital, Woodroof comes back and talks with Saks about his options, which are essentially zero. It’s going to kill him and there’s not much she can do about it.
Simultaneously, the drug AZT is being tested on AIDS patients with mixed results, including at the same Dallas hospital where Sevard and Saks work. The pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome is rushing through human testing to get approved what turns out to be the most expensive drug ever sold, offering very generous fees for physicians and facilities willing to assist.
Knowing that the clock is ticking down the days of his life, Woodroof becomes an earnest researcher, reading everything he can about AIDS, HIV, AZT and the many theories about treatment. After all, he’s dying and day by day we watch McConaughey lose weight as the disease takes its toll.
When Saks refuses to let him participate in the AZT trials, he first bribes a hospital orderly to smuggle out the drug, then ends up in Mexico at the clinic of Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), seeking a cure, any cure, before his time runs out. But Vass is skeptical of AZT and instead puts Woodroof on a cocktail of vitamins and supplements that helps him regain some of his health.
Woodroof starts smuggling these drugs and supplements back into the US under the skeptical and ultimately hostile nose of the Food and Drug Administration. They finally shut him down as a common drug dealer and he has a stroke of genius: He’s going to give away these drugs to members of his “Buyer’s Club”. They pay $400/mo and get all the drugs they want, free. Thus is born the Dallas Buyers Club.
A film of this sort succeeds or fails based on our ability to identify and sympathize with the lead character, and McConaughey turns in such a startling performance that while he starts out quite unlikeable, a bigot who finds his friends turn on him when word gets out that he has that “faggot disease”, his journey to trailblazing crusader for better treatments for HIV positive people, gay or straight, is remarkable and he emerges as a heroic figure.
Throughout, however, he swears like a sailor and, when his energy level permits, is always looking for a woman with whom to have a quick sexual encounter, including one amusing scene at the Buyers Club office. While it might have been true to Woodroof’s character, this reviewer found the language and crudity off-putting, even as so much else in the film was splendid.
While Garner turns in a respectable performance as Saks, gradually becoming more and more sympathetic to the plight of those HIV positive, the real co-star of the film is Jared Leto as the cross-dressing Rayon. Leto finds the heart, the courage in a character that could have all too easily been played as a crass stereotype, a one-dimensional “queen”. But Rayon is also HIV positive and when he partners with Woodroof, he also forces Woodroof to reevaluate his prejudices against homosexuals.
Set in the mid-80s, director Jean-Marc Vallée avoids all the cliches of the era in Dallas Buyers Club, and when Woodroof goes into a strip club or seedy bar, thankfully we aren’t suddenly transported to a scene from Saturday Night Fever. It’s Texas, after all. In fact, other than the fashions and cars, there’s a timelessness about the story that reminds us that the otherwise marginalized ill in society still need champions to fight for fair access to medications and treatment.
That Dallas Buyers Club is based on a true story and that Ron Woodroof was a real person who, after his own doctor diagnosed him with 30 days to live, actually survived almost 1000 days, fighting both the FDA and big pharma to ensure HIV positive patients had access to a wide variety of potential treatments makes this film even more powerful.
It’s not for younger audiences because of the language and many crude sexual scenes, but it’s a strong film with an important message, a film carried by the superb performances of both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. Go see it.