McConaughey’s crusading AIDS patient powers ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
It’s hard to imagine a less likely crusader in the fight against AIDS than Ron Woodroof. A coke-snorting, womanizing, blue-collar Texan, Woodroof was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the mid-1980s and given 30 days to live—a death sentence he defied for years to become a pioneer in making “unapproved” drugs from out of the country available to his local AIDS community. It’s a true story that unspools as a tale of bizarre alliances and unexpected heroism in the pugnacious, yet affecting drama, Dallas Buyers Club.
Directed by French-Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (switching gears from his best-known film, stateside, The Young Victoria), from a script by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club rests almost entirely on the frighteningly thin shoulders of star Matthew McConaughey. Over the last couple of years, the busy McConaughey has been rehabbing his screen image and reclaiming his career from the wasteland of action fare and light romantic comedies in challenging roles in Killer Joe and Magic Mike, among others. (He was exceptional in Mud, earlier this year.)
Playing Woodroof is the cherry on top, and McConaughey gives it everything he’s got. His Woodroof is a brash, profane antihero who acquires shading, sympathy, even grace, in the process of rising to meet life’s challenges. The actor lost nearly 40 pounds for the role and it’s a shock to see him so emaciated. But he earns his (almost certain) Oscar nomination not for his diet, but for the unquenchable drive and cool chutzpah he brings to the role, and the film. And he’s not the only one: co-star Jared Leto gives an equally bold and vivid performance as a sassy transvestite who becomes Woodroof’s business partner.
In the film, Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), is not only an electrician by trade, but a homophobic rodeo bull-rider. He’s first glimpsed in a shadowy bullpen just before a ride, enjoying an acrobatic threesome with a couple of buxom rodeo groupies. He devotes his days and nights to hanging out with his redneck buddies, drinking, whoring, and doing recreational drugs. So when he wakes up in the hospital, given the prognosis of 30 days left to live, he goes into instant, aggressive denial. He tells himself only “faggots” get HIV—until a trip to the library for research (on a quaint old microfiche machine) explains the part about needles and unprotected sex.
The hospital is involved in testing a potential AIDS-fighting drug, AZT, as yet unapproved by the FDA, but the trials will take a year. After flirting with prayer and suicide, Ron follows a tip and goes to Mexico, where an Anglo doctor, Vass (Griffin Dunne), operates a run-down clinic. Telling him AZT is toxic to those with corrupted immune systems, Vass gets Ron clean and fixes him up with a cocktail of vitamins, proteins, and other experimental drugs unavailable in the States.
Feeling stronger, and already past his expiration date, Ron hatches a scheme to smuggle supplies and information back across the border, to sell to the growing number of desperate AIDS patients. His liaison to the gay community is the feisty, but vulnerable HIV-positive transvestite, Rayon (Leto), he’s met in the hospital. Calling on his considerable resources of charm and chicanery, Ron neatly sidesteps FDA interference. The drugs are unapproved, but not illegal to possess, only to sell, so he and Rayon set up shop in adjoining motel rooms as a buyers club: members pay a fee to join, but the drugs are free.
Ron’s motives are entirely selfish—survival and profit—as he travels the world in search of improved drugs (and doctors willing to be bribed to write him prescriptions). But he grows from his experiences too. Finagling some facts of Woodroof’s personal life throws his courage into dramatic relief; ostracized by his rodeo buddies, he’s embraced by members of the gay community whose symptoms he helps to manage (along with their fears). He determines to battle for what is right and humane, not just what is legal and expedient for the health and pharmaceutical industries.
Jennifer Garner is on hand as a compassionate doctor and low-key potential romantic interest. But the real love affair here is between McConaughey and the acting profession. His bravura performance keeps the movie alive.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB ★ ★ ★ (out of four) With Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner. Written by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. A Focus Features release. Rated R. 117 minutes.