In form, Dallas Buyers Club would appear a rollicking, globe-hopping ride, complete with a compelling kingpin figure and a sprawling mega-heist at its center. In execution, however, the film walks quite a steep tightrope, since the kingpin figure is a hateful bigot and the mega-heist involves the smuggling and thinly-veiled distribution of unapproved drug cocktails at the height of the AIDS crisis in the mid-’80s. For viewers, the film is itself a dangerous cocktail, blending a spirited, devil-may-care narrative jaunt with dark, grim real-life drama…
…not unlike its protagonist, Ron Woodroof, who is without question one of the most execrable individuals ever to become a human rights hero. To be fair, the “hero” bit was never at the top of the guy’s to-do list upon learning of his certain death sentence (HIV-positive, T-cell count of 9, and an estimated 30 days left to live). Survival was his top priority; scoring a major payday was eventually a close second. But of course, as it often happens in the movies, a selfish notion becomes a journey of empathy. Except in Woodroof’s case, it was real life, and the empathetic journey became a small revolution.
Make no mistake about it: the bigoted womanizer-turned AIDS drug crusader was not the sole proprietor of this revolution; his “Dallas Buyers Club” was merely one of many upstart strongholds in the fight to procure and proliferate effective drugs to the increasing number of HIV sufferers, who were viewed as modern-day lepers even by the medical establishment. The screenplay, by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, doesn’t attempt to hide this fact, nor does it depict Woodroof as a noble solo trailblazer. In fact, one of the great challenges in crafting this fact-based script surely had to be balancing the merits of Woodroof’s plight with his decidedly unsavory persona. But within that challenge lies the uniqueness of this story. It’s not Woodroof’s actions that set his story apart — it’s the soulful redemption that was triggered by those actions.
Matthew McConaughey plays Woodroof, in the latest and greatest role of his two-year Coming Out party as a serious actor of striking force and incredible nuance. His staggering 50-pound weight loss is the eye-catching outward portion of this performance, but the abandon with which McConaughey throws himself into this man’s viscerally ugly persona while still allowing charisma to shine through is his most astonishing accomplishment. Here’s a guy who is a swindler, born and bred — a coke-snorting, beer-guzzling, homophobic, sex-a-holic pig who is made violently angry when his HIV diagnosis is accompanied with the implication that he’s gay. One of the film’s strongest thematic achievements is how it clearly portrays this deep-south prejudice as a crippling fear of the Other. The realization that he is now the Other is what sets Woodroof on a course for, if not complete salvation, at least a quasi-atonement for a life squandered on hard living and hate.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee manages the fact-based story quite nimbly, embracing the brash ingenuity of Woodroof’s inner hustler while never letting him off the hook for his sins and never failing to acknowledge the grim severity of living with AIDS. As our “hero” spirals deeper into illness, he seeks alternative medicine in Mexico that proves to be far more effective than the FDA-pushed AZT, which gives him the idea that would come to define him: smuggle these alternative drugs across the border and form a legally sound LLC to distribute these drugs to the people who desperately need them. This plan is, of course, grand-scale fraud, which unfolds with the snazziness of a heist film and becomes the basis for Woodroof’s redemption. He forms a business partnership with pre-op transgender Rayon (Jared Leto, every bit as brilliant as you’ve heard), who gives him an in with the gay community. This bond morphs into a quasi-marriage — they live together, they work together, they go grocery shopping together… and without ever outwardly acknowledging it, they love each other.
Dallas Buyers Club is a powerful film, though not a perfect one. Certain sequences veer towards the inelegant and obvious, with overt grandstanding filling a void that would be better served by quiet nuance. And the transition from serious drama to jaunty humor and back again can be a bit sloppy, which occasionally blunts the effectiveness of both of the film’s emotional poles. But McConaughey is absolutely riveting from beginning to end, Leto is stellar in support, and what the film conveys so well is the fear, the confusion, the desperation, and the urgency of AIDS sufferers in this period of crisis. They needed acceptance and they needed relief, and those are the two most crucial emotional elements of this brutal-but-important film.