Film Review: Dallas Buyers ClubA rail-thin Matthew McConaughey, stunningly portraying a hyper-hetero, lowlife Lothario cowboy who discovers he’s HIV-positive, finally gets to flirt “real serious” with an Oscar nom in this high-octane drama inspired by true events.
Dallas Buyers Club is all about Ron Woodroof, a bigoted, womanizing loser who’s as hard to like as Matthew McConaughey makes him easy to believe. Woodroof, a kind of Jesse James in the AIDS wars, bucks a system that, as the plague encroaches on the population in the ’80s, keeps effective alternative treatments from an increasingly desperate population.
McConaughey’s performance should win him a slew of awards (if not the ultimate) and plenty of fans that this down and gritty film might not otherwise attract. Another draw is Jared Leto, riveting as Woodroof’s unlikely effeminate transgendered business partner.
As for director Jean-Marc Vallée, he displays remarkable versatility with this raw, rowdy, raunchy exploration. Previous Vallée films, all far tamer, include the modest, award-winning coming-of-age drama C.R.A.Z.Y., the lush British historical epic The Young Victoria, and the problematic but ambitious trans-generational, cross-border love story Café de Flore.
Dallas Buyers Club begins in 1985 as Woodroof, a foul-mouthed Dallas, Texas layabout who occasionally works as an electrician, is first introduced at a dusty rodeo where he rides the animals and acts like one with trashy rodeo groupies. He soon begins showing symptoms of physical decline, maybe the result of too much guzzling or coke or balling. But after problems land him in a hospital, he is diagnosed as HIV-positive, with maybe fewer than 30 days to live.
The homophobic Woodroof, also afflicted with deep denial, won’t accept the news. Rather than remain for treatment and disgusted with anything having to do with homosexuality, he flees. But AIDS catches up with him, and he’s soon back in the hospital. There he meets both Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), a genuinely concerned physician, and the far more conservative Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare), only wedded to the few limited treatments like AZT approved for AIDS patients.
A hospital stay also introduces Woodroof, loose with anti-gay remarks to his cronies, to Rayon (Jared Leto), a sprite of a transgendered AIDS patient who surely epitomizes the kind of character most reprehensible to the cowboy.
Finally facing his grim reality, Woodroof hits the books and does research on medicines countering the growing plague. His digging makes him aware of alternative treatments not available in the U.S. because government approvals can be like waiting for Godot.
He learns that many alternatives are available in nearby Mexico specifically and makes the journey there. He meets eccentric ex-pat Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), an unlicensed doctor who has retreated south after some unarticulated bad luck across the border and earns a living dispensing drugs unavailable in the States.
Woodroof pulls some elaborate tricks, including a disguise as a priest, to move a huge stash of illicit AIDS drugs across the border. Feeling trapped as a patient not being well-served by the American government and medical profession, he decides to go into business as an importer of these untested medications. Hence, Woodroof’s creation of the Dallas Buyers Club, a soon booming business able to operate because it is a club that requires membership dues from those wanting treatments.
Woodroof, knowing he needs outreach into the gay community, recruits Rayon, at battle with a wealthy, disapproving father (James Dumont), into the business. He brings Dr. Saks to his side and even becomes an activist on the AIDS front by speaking on behalf of quicker government approval of drugs and better access for AIDS patients. Conditions for patients improve, but AIDS continues to steal lives.
With its unlikely character leading the charge, Dallas Buyers Club also functions as an unusual history of the AIDS crisis. The film is beautifully produced, edgily shot and edited, and driven along by a whip-cracking music track of mostly country-western and T. Rex songs. The New Orleans area serves as a fine stand-in for Texas and other locations.
Screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack don’t fall back on any heroic or clichéd turns but keep Woodroof on an outlaw course where no pro-gay marches or quilts sweeten the way or soften the character’s macho, prejudicial core. Yet it’s McConaghey’s savvy incarnation of this Lone Star brute that makes this gritty tale worth the ride.