November 2023

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

dallas-buyers-clubDIRECTOR: Jean-Marc Vallee

CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner


Like 1993’s PhiladelphiaDallas Buyers Club centers on an individual’s experience in the AIDS crisis, but unlike Jonathan Demme’s earlier film, it tells a true story, that of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic heterosexual who was transformed by circumstances into a crusader for AIDS patients and the ringleader of a mostly gay Dallas-based group called The Dallas Buyers Club, using medications unapproved in the US and waging a years-long war with the FDA and extending his own life to another seven years, far beyond his initial prognosis of thirty days.  While Philadelphia‘s flaws were somewhat mitigated by its social courage in releasing at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Dallas Buyers Club might have the most value to viewers too young to remember the climate of the time period, with AIDS sufferers treated with fear and ignorance and effective medication hard to come by.

In 1985 Dallas, Texas, rodeo cowboy and electrician Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) had his life turned upside down when he was given an HIV positive diagnosis and a life expectancy of thirty days.  Woodroof—a prototypical macho redneck womanizing and homophobic cowboy—is turned on by his friends, accused of being gay, ostracized, driven out of his trailer, and subjected to homophobic harassment.  A couple visits to the hospital leads Ron to the realization that AZT, the experimental drug tested on AIDS patients, does more harm than good, and he eventually uses globe-trotting and trips to Mexico to circumvent the FDA regulations, obtain non-toxic medications, and found the Dallas Buyers Club, a members-only organization that–for a hefty membership fee–distributes life-prolonging drugs to hundreds of desperate men and women, principally represented by transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto), with whom the homophobic Ron forms a business partnership and eventually genuine friendship.  Meanwhile, Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) realizes Ron’s medications are doing more good than the AZT her own superiors are hawking, and defies them to first turn a blind eye to Ron’s illegal activities, then actively support him.

Among AIDS-centric dramas, Dallas Buyers Club is a stronger film than Philadelphia, perhaps partly but not only because of the true story basis.  Some who knew the real Woodroof (who died in 1992) claim the film exaggerates his homophobia, and there is even room for ambiguity about the real Woodroof’s sexual orientation, with some claiming the film paints him as heterosexual to make it more accessible to mainstream heterosexual audiences, but liberties taken with true stories is nothing new, and it works effectively onscreen to give him a compelling character arc.  Ron’s personal transformation from a stereotypical macho homophobe who hurls anti-gay slurs on a regular basis to the leader of a mostly gay band of AIDS patients who fights passionately not only for himself, but for those under his care, is the movie’s strongest aspect, and McConaughey and the filmmakers present it with enough subtlety and a gradual enough pace to be believable.  Ron might not ever feel comfortable waving a rainbow flag in a gay pride rally, but at some point, Rayon and his other clients come to mean more to him than money.  Two moments–one where he comes to Rayon’s defense against one of his own homophobic former buddies, and another where they share a full hug for the first time–are pivotal for showing the change in Ron.

The movie also makes a major subplot out of a scathing indictment of the FDA, throwing strong accusations of the Food and Drug Administration being in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry, and of human concerns coming at a secondary priority to taking advantage of the AIDS crisis to maximize profits by relentlessly hawking AZT and brushing aside evidence suggesting its harmful side effects.  There’s more than a little David vs. Goliath here, with Ron doggedly keeping the Dallas Buyers Club alive, visiting various countries and working with black market doctors to keep obtaining his products (non-toxic vitamins and minerals aimed at boosting the immune system) despite the relentless war by FDA officials to shut him down using loopholes, legal technicalities, and behavior which even a judge derides as “bullying tactics”.  These kind of accusations are nothing new, whether in film or in reality, but Dallas Buyers Club makes its case effectively.

dallas-buyers-club-trailerA gaunt Matthew McConaughey, undergoing a physical transformation in the same vein of Christian Bale’s skeletal appearance in The Machinist (he lost 50 pounds), gives possibly his best performance since 1996’s A Time to Kill, and might surpass it.  After spending many years slumming in disposable romantic comedies, his portrayal of Woodroof serves as an eye-opening reminder that McConaughey is capable of giving strong dramatic performances when he puts his mind to it.  Ron is not initially an easy man to like—he’s as much a homophobic bigot as any of his buddies, snorts coke, has sex with prostitutes, and is generally an abrasive individual—and McConaughey doesn’t soften his edges.  But, as the movie unfolds, McConaughey finds Ron’s humanity.  The chameleonic transformation of his performance is surpassed by that of an almost unrecognizable Jared Leto, who dropped 40 pounds and disappears into the role of the transvestite Rayon, even perfecting a feminine voice and mannerisms.  After over a decade of sporadic acting roles and primary focus on his music career, Leto, like McConaughey, has made a forceful return to the spotlight.  Leto’s transformation is as or more impressive than McConaughey’s, even if his character is more a plot device than a fleshed-out individual.  The only other “name” in the cast is Jennifer Garner as the token doctor who takes a stand against the medical industry.  Garner’s performance is fine, but it exists in the shadows of McConaughey and Leto.  Smaller roles are filled out by low-profile character actors including Steve Zahn, Denis O’Hare (True Blood‘s King Russell), and Dallas Roberts.

As a character study, a depiction of the 1980s atmosphere of the AIDS crisis, or an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, Dallas Buyers Club is effective, but while this is a solid motion picture, it’s not a groundbreaking one.  Other films have handled somewhat similar subject matter with more power.  Rayon is a representative of the gay men and women and transvestites Ron interacted with and a plot device to show his transformation rather than a fully fleshed-out individual, and the same is true for Dr. Saks, who like Rayon was not based on one specific person but serves as a narrative plot device.  They serve their purposes effectively enough, but Ron is the only three-dimensional individual.  The movie tries to end the inherently grim subject matter on an upbeat note, but while the ending provides a little catharsis, it’s also a little anti-climactic, though it’s hard to say whether any other way to conclude it would have been more effective.  But these are minor flaws, and the movie’s accomplishments–telling both a remarkable true story, and providing a history lesson about the bleak plight of AIDS sufferers during the 1980s–are strong enough to overcome them.  Dallas Buyers Club is not a great movie, but it does what it sets out to do.

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