Dallas Buyers Club Review

Stunning performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto drive this humane drama about the early years of AIDS.

In Dallas Buyers Club the year is 1985 and AIDS is still largely known as “the gay disease.” Which is why Texas cowboy, committed ladies man and all-around hedonist Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is shocked almost into physically assaulting his doctor (Denis O’Hare) when he discovers that he not only has the virus, but is given only 30 days to live. At first in serious denial, Woodroof soon accepts his condition – but not his fate. As dissolute and unfocused as his life seems to be, Woodroof wants to live and will muster all his greasy charm and street-smart ways to do so. Stymied in his attempts to quickly obtain AZT – the only drug showing some success against the virus – from the otherwise sympathetic Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), Woodroof finds other means to get the drug, which produces still uncertain side effects that nearly punch his ticket right on schedule. Down but undaunted, Woodroof heads to Mexico to get more, but ends up meeting Vass (Griffin Dunne), an exiled American doctor whose own treatment of AIDS has led to some surprising discoveries of better and healthier options to use against the disease. When his efforts to smuggle alternative but non-approved treatments home are challenged by the U.S. government, Woodroof – with the help of his transsexual fellow AIDS patient Rayon (Jared Leto) – launches the Dallas Buyers Club, where victims of the disease can pay a monthly membership fee to obtain the treatments that can prolong their lives. At first a pariah within his own good-old-boy circles, and viewed with mistrust by the gay community, Woodroof becomes an unlikely champion for not just the latter but for the rights of patients to seek their own solutions. Movies can show us corners of history that we may not have known about, and that’s exactly what Dallas Buyers Club does. Even if one has been aware of the plight of AIDS victims and the general history of the disease, the name Ron Woodroof may not be the first to escape one’s lips when discussing it. But Woodroof played his small yet vital role, and Dallas Buyers Club does a mostly superb job of filtering the struggle of AIDS sufferers and the plight of individuals fighting bureaucracies through the journey of this flawed and far from likable man.  The earthy Texan, who initially throws around the word “f—got” with wild abandon and flinches from the friendly touch of the flamboyant Rayon, is fundamentally decent yet shackled at first by his own ignorance and that of the culture he has grown up in. It’s a role tailor-made for McConaughey, whose shockingly thin frame (he lost some 38 pounds for the role) nevertheless still holds a wiry toughness and charisma. The actor never hits a wrong note throughout, making one root for Woodroof’s sheer determination even as his homophobia rears its foul head in the early going. Woodroof’s journey echoes that of society at large when it comes to AIDS, moving from ignorance and bigotry to acceptance, and at least some sense of compassion. McConaughey’s detailed performance keeps Woodroof human, but intentionally never elevates him to some kind of saintly status: It’s clear from the start that the Dallas Buyers Club is about saving his own life first and then saving others as a business proposition, even if he does transcend his own uglier feelings toward LGBT people. The catalyst for much of that is Leto’s Rayon, and the actor fully immerses himself in this survivor, troubled soul and shrewd negotiator who ends up as Woodroof’s unlikeliest of partners. The actor and musician has been spending much of the last decade on tour with his band 30 Seconds to Mars, but his moving portrayal here (the bank scene, which I won’t say too much about, is one of the finest I’ve seen all year) reminds us of why we thought so highly of him in Requiem for a Dream. I’ve never been impressed all that much by Garner, but she uses her lightweight presence to her advantage here, making the underwritten Saks (a composite of several real-life doctors) into a somewhat nerdy caregiver who is slowly awakened to just how much damage the medical bureaucracy and the pharmacological industry are doing in their pursuit of profits. But even the ostensible villains of the piece – from O’Hare’s Dr. Sevard to the FDA official Barkley (Michael O’Neill) – are not one-dimensional creations, but professionals struggling with their own prejudices and moral or legal codes.  Director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria) stages all this in minimalist style, using handheld digital cameras and available light in carefully detailed period settings to give Dallas Buyers Club immediacy and a semi-documentary feel. The narrative is not perfect; a montage of scenes in the second act tends to rush through a lot of Woodroof’s actions in getting the drugs for the Buyers Club, leaving some of the story unclear, while two or three scenes late in the film – including a cringeworthy “gather ‘round and applaud” cue – feel tacked on and false, as if the producers wanted some larger redemptive moments for audiences to latch onto before they left the theater. But that’s the thing: Dallas Buyers Club mostly isn’t about the kinds of epiphanies and dramatic turnarounds that happen all so often in movies. It’s about a stumbling, halting yet steadfast journey of accumulated knowledge, desperate risks and dawning awareness that ultimately leads – in remarkably understated fashion – to something like light. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!


4 out of 5