A lot has changed in 30 years; and in some regards, that’s a very good thing. Once upon a time, in the mid 1980s, if you were found to have the AIDS virus, it was over for you. A horrifically painful, wasting death awaited in the very near future. Then there was the stigma that turned you into a social pariah – AIDS was considered a gay disease and it was still largely unclear how it was spread, meaning people wouldn’t even want to be the same room as you; let alone touch you.
In true story Dallas Buyers Club, this is the exact situation that blue-collar Man’s Man Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) finds himself. Told in 1985 that he has just 30 days to settle his affairs, Woodroof starts off in massive denial. This electrician, rodeo cowboy and occasional conman returns to his hard-living ways. Soon though, he has no other option but to accept that he is sick. Really, really sick.
What he doesn’t accept though is dying, particularly when his research reveals that there are new antiretroviral drugs available to help sufferers. The only problem is that powerful pharmaceutical companies are restricting options for the American public in order to secure massive profits for themselves. So Woodroof starts smuggling in these ARVs from elsewhere, exploiting every legal loophole to supply himself and his “buyers’ club” of HIV+ clients.
Dallas Buyers Club runs a bit long, and the audience starts to feel as tired as Ron once his initial underdog victories give way to inevitable defeat by the authorities with their massive legal and legislative muscle. What the film never is, though, is depressing or maudlin.
Dallas Buyers Club could easily have been a cheesy tale where a homophobe learns acceptance of gays when he becomes an outcast too. But even this aspect is treated with a relaxed, and frequently humorous, matter-of-factness by director Jean-Marc Vallée. Some of the film’s best scenes involve Ron’s interactions – and eventual friendship – with Rayon (Jared Leto), an AIDS sufferer and trans woman.
Actually, it’s pretty fair to say that Dallas Buyers Club is powered by the Oscar-winning performances of McConaughey and Leto. It’s phenomenal transformative work at all levels. Both actors lost a shocking amount of weight for the film, but casting aside their public personas here involves a lot more than surface changes. McConaughey’s Ron may have an emaciated exterior, but incredible strength of will sparkles in his eyes. He is quick-witted defiance, personified. There is nothing he won’t do to survive. Leto‘s Rayon is similarly charismatic, but she isn’t strong enough to keep her demons at bay. Still, Leto is so convincing in the role that by the time you see him in men’s clothes again, that is when he looks oddest.
For the record, countering the otherwise sausage-fest nature of the film is Jennifer Garner’s doctor. Increasingly Dr Saks comes to sympathise with the unjust plight of her desperate patients, which brings her into conflict with her hospital bosses. Truthfully, Garner has little more to do than act as “straight man” to McConaughey and Leto, but her character is likeable and easy enough for the audience to latch onto.
If you enjoyed Erin Brockovich, Dallas Buyers Club will be right up your alley. It’s a highly accessible, always interesting tale of an everyman who refuses to accept the odds stacked against him. As a bonus, its backdrop is a fascinating period of paranoia-saturated history that tends to be forgotten three decades later.
Last Updated: March 13, 2014