Dallas Buyers Club is a surprisingly hopeful take on a complicated and ultimately fatal disease. Quebec filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee’s film gracefully takes on the true story of the prejudice, pain and absolute terror of the HIV/AIDS crisis, while maintaining a wry sense of humour and optimism.
An almost unrecognizable Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, the stereotypical 1980’s macho, rodeo going, hard partying cowboy type – promiscuous, brash, and homophobic. A workplace accident leads Ron Woodroof to a stay in the hospital, where he is diagnosed with HIV, and given 30 days to live. Without “legal” means of obtaining the drugs necessary to keep himself alive – Ron travels to Mexico, where he learns of alternative treatments and the struggles of obtaining treatment without FDA approval. What starts as a means of survival becomes a full-fledged treatment selling business – the “Dallas Buyers Club”.
The performances in Dallas Buyers Club elevate the film from conventional “based on a true story” fare to awards-worthy status.
Matthew McConaughey is a serious actor y’all. You better take notice. In the past few years, McConaughey has shifted his focus from safe rom-coms to more complex and unconventional films. His recent turns in Mud and Killer Joe were unexpected and garnered strong critical praise. In Dallas Buyers Club, he’s more than just “alright, alright, alright” – he’s absolutely fantastic. Having lost a shocking amount of weight for the role, McConaughey embodies the spirit of the film – all sharp angles, gritty and real. We’re used to seeing McConaughey’s charm and charisma – but here, it’s harnessed to be more sardonic and witty than what we’re used to. In his portrayal of Ron Woodroof, the character transforms from a homophobic and careless man (who vehemently denies being infected with HIV), to a crusader for equal rights and access to treatment for all HIV and AIDS patients. His physical transformation is shocking – he’s gone from the muscle-bound stud of Magic Mike to a skeletal frame reminiscent of Christian Bale’s weight-loss for The Machinist. His appearance withers as his illness progresses – it’s a breathtaking display of commitment to a role. McConaughey’s portrayal of Ron Woodroof is anything but cliché – he’s not instantly likeable. He’s rude and obnoxious. Seedy and underhanded. But he’s the reluctant fighter. A real person with an incredible story.
Jared Leto plays the transsexual and HIV infected Rayon, one of Ron’s first allies in his Dallas Buyers Club scheme. Leto is the heartbreaking soul of the film. He’s funny and flirty, dressed to the scandalous nine’s and breathes so much life into a character facing certain death. Leto could have portrayed the cross-dressing Rayon with over-the-top theatricality that Hollywood often reserves for this type of character – but he plays the character with so much soft-spoken sincerity.
McConaughey and Leto carry the film. Jennifer Garner and David O’Hare are serviceable in their respective good doctor/bad doctor roles. Most other characters come off as one-note. Without McConaughey and Leto – the film would have been a much less enthralling.
Stereotypes are a key focus of the film, as Ron’s diagnosis forces him to challenge his own misconceptions of the HIV/AIDS crisis and the communities that it affects.
The film also focuses on the availability of drugs and treatment options, FDA sanctions and the frustrating uphill battle against AIDS. As Ron struggles to obtain AZT (an experimental drug under testing by the FDA) – he shifts his focus to drugs available internationally but not approved for use in the U.S. by the Federal Drug Administration. In Dallas Buyers Club Woodroof and Co fight against the bureaucracy of the FDA and the nature of the relationship between drug companies and doctors.
The film is much more than a story about the fight against AIDS – it’s the enthralling and true story of a story of a scrapper renegade. It feels like Ron is riding a bull in the Rodeo – hanging on for dear life. The film could have easily been made sentimental – but it’s Ron Woodroof’s self-interest and cowboy nature that make this trip to the rodeo fulfilling and interesting.
If Dallas Buyers Club gives us any indication of the kind of performances that McConaughey is selling… then, I’m buying.