“Dallas Buyers Club” messes with your expectations. Going in, I expected a rodeo movie about an almost-unrecognizable, stick-thin Matthew McConaughey (“Mud”) humping lots of ladies and snorting lots of coke. In many ways, that’s what it is. But surprisingly, the story is also a heart-warming tragedy, elevating itself with brilliant character transformations and an intelligent commentary on the treatment of HIV during the 1980s.
The plot follows Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a perpetually half-drunk electrician who finds out he has AIDs and will die in 30 days. The news isn’t exactly taken well: He goes off on a homophobic rant and gets more drugged up. It’s not long before he ends up back at the hospital, where he meets Rayon, a sweet and smart-mouthed cross-dresser. Played by Jared Leto (“Mr. Nobody”), Rayon is what the film needs to balance out Woodroof’s hick conservatism
Woodroof , desperate to prolong his one-month death sentence, starts taking AZT—a harmful drug soon to be approved by the Federal Drug Administration—and undergoes trials by doctors Eve Saks (played by a sweet and too easily overlooked Jennifer Garner, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green”) and Sevard (Denis O’Hare, “J. Edgar”). It’s not long before AZT leaves Woodroof on the verge of death and he goes out looking for a new solution—in Mexico. He meets a rogue doctor, played with ease and humor by Griffin Dunne (“Broken City”), who prescribes a series of vitamins and proteins. The two start up a business that involves Woodroof smuggling these miracle pills over the border in his trunk, somehow getting across while dressed in purposeful irony as a priest.
Sometime mid-movie the viewer realizes what director Jean-Marc Vallée is really up to: The film’s beginning takes us to Woodroof’s lowest point. He comes off as an idiot, an asshole, a sex-hungry, drug-snuffing bigot. The audience hates him. But somehow, miraculously, the viewer gets to see another side. As it turns out, Woodroof is not only smart, but extremely innovative and clever. His bigotry softens when he brings Rayon into his business to attract clientele. The two bicker like siblings, and their strange chemistry has strong emotional appeal.
The film chronicles an interesting dilemma of the 1980s, when many of those suffering from AIDs took a do-it-yourself approach, recreating themselves as medical entrepreneurs in order to distribute medication unapproved by the FDA. Woodroof’s story is captivating, and his character arc illuminates a more tender side. However, it’s difficult to ignore that Woodroof is mostly motivated by survival and money, rather than the general good of his clients/patients. His overt horniness—made obvious when he grabs a young hotty suffering from AIDs and sleazily fucks her in the bathroom—is supposed to be amusing but really doesn’t do anything to impress upon the audience his compassion.
Leto is the gem of the film: Rayon’s suffering in the face of a slow, downhill disintegration is painful and heartbreaking to witness. And Woodroof, when he becomes more charming, clever and a little less selfish, is certainly entertaining, even if I left the theater skeptical of his supposed benevolence. All in all, “Dallas Buyers Club” is captivating, moving and memorable; behind its playful and humorous exterior is a painful sadness that is truly eye-opening.
4.5 out of 5 stars