Ron Woodroof was the kind of guy that many people wouldn’t want to know. When we first see him, he’s at the rodeo, having sex with two women. Shortly thereafter, he’s running from men whom he has welshed on a bet. His friend, a cop (Steve Zahn), saves him, but slugs him in the mouth for good measure.
Ron, as played with incandescence by Matthew McConaughey, is a womanizer, a heavy drinker, and a cocaine user. He hangs out in a bar that has a large Confederate flag tacked to the wall. Not only is he not a “faggot,” as he proclaims, he doesn’t know any.
So when he is diagnosed with HIV, he at first dismisses the notion. But then he remembers a regrettable sexual encounter, and realizes he’s in deep shit. There’s nothing like a death sentence to focus one’s attention. Unable to get the drugs he needs in the U.S., he heads to Mexico, and with the help of an American doctor, learns that AZT, the one drug that is in the process of being approved, is actually making him sicker. He brings better drugs across the border, but to get around the law against selling them, he gives them away for free, but only to those who buy a membership. This is Dallas Buyers Club.
There have been movies about the AIDS crisis, mostly in documentary fashion, such as How to Survive a Plague. I would imagine we haven’t seen Hollywood tackle the subject, because of a reluctance to use gay characters as protagonists–even in Philadelphia (twenty years ago now), Denzel Washington is the character the audience is meant to identify with. Because Woodroof was straight, the movie can be made. That being said, this is not a bad thing. I’m reminded that most of the major sex discrimination laws that Ruth Ginsberg fought against as an attorney focused on laws discriminating against men–sometimes it takes people see things from the other side to make them see the light.
Though this film is about AIDS and the medical establishment dragging their feet on treatment, the spine of the film is how Woodroof, ironically, became a better person because of his illness. A reprehensible redneck transforms into a person who not only knows gays, he grows to like them and value their friendship. And while this may sound like movie-of-the-week schmaltz, it most certainly is not. This film is tough and unsentimental, which makes the change all the more impactful.
Dallas Buyers Club was directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. The only film I’ve seen before by him was The Young Victoria, and nothing about that film prepared me for how good this is. With a smart script by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, and excellent editing by Vallee and Martin Penza, this film pulses with energy from the first frame to the last, a frozen image back at the rodeo.
But it’s the acting that I’ll remember. McConaughey, rail-thin and looking like a gnawed bone, is scary good. He’s convincing as a reprobate, and he’s convincing as a man who decides to take on the FDA. He has many memorable scenes, such as the one where he comes home to find his trailer with homophobic graffiti on it and his door padlocked. He gets a shotgun out of his trunk, blows a hole in the door, and shouts to anyone listening, “I live here!”
And there’s a comedian’s gifts to the performance as well. Consider the scene where he first takes AZT, which he gets from an orderly on the sly. He goes home, pops two pills just to make sure, and then has a belt of booze and snorts a line of coke.
If McConaughey is good, I can almost say that Jared Leto is better. He is Rayon, who shares a hospital room with Woodroof. He is a transvestite who is undergoing an AZT trial. Leto invests so much dignity and humor in the role that it’s almost too heartbreaking to watch him, and his scene with his banker father, who has disowned him, is mesmerizing. Leto also makes a very good looking woman.
Also in the cast is Jennifer Garner, as a doctor who ultimately takes McConaughey’s side. She’s good, too, though a bit too idealized, I think. Denis O’Hare is the bad guy doctor, but I couldn’t watch him without thinking of Russell Edgington from True Blood.
Dallas Buyers Club made me laugh, made me tear up, and made me angry. It’s one of the best films of the year.
My grade for Dallas Buyers Club: A.