Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée.
Written by: Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey (Ron Woodroof), Jared Leto (Rayon), Jennifer Garner (Dr. Eve Saks), Denis O'Hare (Dr. Savari), Steve Zahn (Police Officer), Dallas Roberts (David Wayne), Kevin Rankin (T.J.), Griffin Dunne (Doctor Vas), Michael O’Neal (Richard Barkley).
Dallas Buyers Club tells the remarkable true story (probably heavily fictionalized, but whatever) of Ron Woodroof – a homophobic Texas man, who works an electrician and hangs out at rodeos, who discovers in 1985 that through his womanizing, he has contracted HIV. At the time, many assumed only gay men and drug users got HIV (a stereotype that sadly some still believe). The doctors give Ron 30 days to live – and yet he lives for years after his diagnosis – and does so not by listening to his doctors, but by ignoring them. They won’t give him the drugs he needs – they are not approved by the FDA yet – so he finds other ways to get them – and when that supply runs dry, he finds other drugs and supplements to help him survive. Since these drugs and supplements are not approved by the FDA he has to smuggle them into the country, and is at constant risk of their being confiscated. Never one to miss a chance at making money, he steals an idea from “some queens” in New York – and opens a Buyers Club in Dallas. He won’t sell its members the non-FDA approved stuff, but he will sell them a membership to the club, and then give them everything they need.
Woodruff is played by Matthew McConaughey in another great performance. After years of making empty headed romcoms and thrillers – years I mainly spent thinking McConaughey was as empty as the characters he played – he has now amassed a remarkable string of quality movies and performances in a row – The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Magic Mike, The Paperboy, Killer Joe, Mud and now this. In a few short years, he’s gone from one of my least favorite actors to one of my favorites working today. McConaughey lost a lot of weight to play Woodruff – but it wasn’t (just) to make him seem sicker – he’s as skinny at the beginning (and not alarmed by it) as he is at the end. He is not all skin and bones – but wiry and tough. This is the type of role that McConaughey excels at – it still gives him a chance to exude his undeniable Southern charm, and makes the most of its comic gifts (this is a surprisingly funny movie, given its subject matter). It’s deeper than that as well, as McConaughey makes Woodruff’s pain and frustration real – he doesn’t want to die, but no one will help him stay alive, so he has to help himself. It may not be the best performance McConaughey has ever given (for me, that would be Killer Joe or Mud) – but it’s close, and it elevates the whole movie.
Also elevating movie is the performance by Jared Leto as Rayon, a transvestite, who helps Ron connect with his mainly gay clientele. Leto was once a star on the rise, who slowed down his acting career to concentrate on his music (I won’t tell you what I think of his band 30 Seconds to Mars because that wouldn’t be very nice). Acting for the first time in 4 years, Leto delivers a great performance as Rayon. Often, when an actor plays a transvestite, it’s little more than a stunt – but Leto so inhabits the character, makes Rayon’s every move, gesture and line seem completely natural, that it barely even registers you’re watching Leto – until the one, utterly heartbreaking, scene where he puts on a suit to go see his father. McConaughey and Leto both deliver great performances, and anchor the movie when it hits some rough patches – and there is more than one.
For one thing, the movie seems confused as to who the “villain” of the movie is – and why (I don’t think the movie needed a villain, but that’s Hollywood for you). At first, the doctors and the FDA are monsters for NOT giving people like Woodruff AZT, the drug they thought would cure or at least slow down the disease, and then they are monsters for ONLY giving patients AZT. The movie tries hard to make Dennis O’Hare’s doctor and Michael O’Neal’s FDA agent into the villains of the movie – but the reality is that the bureaucracy is the real villain – it moves too slowly for people in crisis – and the reality is far more complex than the movie lets on (see the excellent documentary How to Survive a Plague from last year for more details). Of course, you cannot make a bureaucracy a villain, so the film tries to make human an entire system – and while it’s not quite as simplistic as a movie like The Help blaming all of Southern racism on Bryce Dallas Howard’s housewife, it isn’t that far off either. The movie does try and point out that the entire medical community isn’t as unfeeling as these two – they make Jennifer Garner’s Dr. Eve Saks into a sympathetic character – but she’s also a rather one note character. Garner’s naturally sympathetic eyes give the character more weight than the screenplay does – but that only goes so far.
These flaws (and a few others, like a thankfully short segment where Woodruff crisscrossed the globe in a series of disguises to bring back more and better drugs, that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Ocean’s 11 movie) are not fatal though. The movie never overdoses on sentimentality like many films of its ilk would (particularly in the way it handles death) and while Woodruff certainly changes his attitude throughout the film towards gay people, he never fully lets go of those prejudices either – nor does the movie make any attempt to make Woodruff completely sanitized either – he remains a womanizer, in what limited capacity he can – and a good ol’boy, drunken redneck – although McConaughey makes him into one so charming, we hardly care. Directed by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee (C.R.A.Z.Y., the under seen Café de Flore), Dallas Buyers Club is a good movie about the AIDS crisis, elevated because of two great performances. Yes, it may be more than a little strange that one of the only movies Hollywood has made about the AIDS crisis has a straight man as its protagonist – but Woodruff’s story is more than enough to support a movie, and deserves to be told.