Dallas Buyers Club (United States, 2013)

November 07, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Dallas Buyers Club Poster

Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodroof, a raging heterosexual homophobe who, over the course of several years in the mid-to-late 1980s, was transformed by circumstances from a card-carrying bigot into a staunch gay rights' activist. After contracting AIDS through unprotected (heterosexual) sex in 1985, Woodroof was given 30 days to live. By going outside the FDA-approved guidelines and taking medications that had not been cleared in the United States, he managed to extend his life. (He died in 1992.) During that period, he founded the "Dallas Buyers Club," an organization that gave away unapproved medications to its members. Through overseas contacts and by making drug runs into Mexico, he was able to supply hundreds of desperate HIV+ men and women. He frequently ran afoul of law enforcement officials (although many of them turned a blind eye), was viewed with skepticism by many doctors, and engaged in skirmishes with the FDA.

As with many "based on facts" biographies, considerable license is taken with the narrative of Woodroof, who is played here in an eye-opening performance by Matthew McConaughey. The most compelling aspect of Dallas Buyers Club comes from watching the way the character develops from a macho redneck into someone who shows respect and affection for the gay men and women he interacts with on a daily basis.

Another thing Dallas Buyers Club accomplishes is to recreate the AIDS-related climate of the mid-to-late 1980s, when paranoia and misinformation about the disease was rampant and approved drugs to mitigate its effects were few and often ineffective. This was a time when the common misperception was that only homosexuals were vulnerable (thus the oft-heard phrase: "AIDS is God's judgment against gays"). This belief is illustrated in the film when ladies' man Woodruff is confronted by his buddies after word of his illness spreads. He is the recipient of hostility, fear, and homophobic actions.

A secondary story element in Dallas Buyers Club relates to the antagonism between AIDS sufferers and the FDA and the frequently asserted allegation that, when it comes to drug approval, the government is in bed with the Big Pharmaceutical Companies. The film goes to great pains to emphasize how business concerns are as important to the decision of which drugs to approve as health care considerations. The Feds eventually clamp down on Woodroof's inventory even though none of the medications are hazardous (vitamins, proteins) - they are merely not approved for the treatment of AIDS in the United States.

In many ways, the film is all about Matthew McConaughey, and Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee is wise enough to train his focus on the actor. Looking like a gaunt version of porn actor Harry Reems, McConaughey does some of the best acting of his career here, submerging into the character. Over the past few years, beginning with The Lincoln Lawyer and continuing through this year's Mud, McConaughey has worked diligently to re-invent his image and if there are any lingering questions about his range or ability, Dallas Buyers Club removes them. The caliber of his performance, not to mention his Christian Bale/The Machinist-style physical transformation (he lost 50 pounds), fulfills Oscar nomination criteria (although, considering how crowded the field is, it's a crapshoot whether he'll make the cut).

McConaughey is supported by Jared Leto, whose portrayal of transvestite Rayon is effectively realized even if his purpose is largely plot-related. Rayon exists as the means by which Woodroof's personality transformation/growth can be measured. The character is important although not three-dimensional. Jennifer Garner fills the seemingly obligatory part of the supportive doctor who takes as stand against the medical establishment. There's nothing wrong with Garner's performance but the character is largely superfluous.

When it comes to finding an audience, Dallas Buyers Club may have similar problems to those encountered by Milk: no matter how dramatically compelling the material, serious movies perceived as "gay films" rarely become box office standouts. Perhaps by focusing on a heterosexual lead, there will be less resistance to see the movie among mainstream viewers. (Although one can make the comparison to films about racism that feature a "white savior.") Regardless of who sees or doesn't see Dallas Buyers Club, however, the movie does what it sets out to do by providing a striking portrait of a remarkable character and offering a history lesson to those too young to remember how things were for AIDS sufferers during the dark ages of the 1980s.

Dallas Buyers Club (United States, 2013)

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner
Screenplay: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Cinematography: Yves Belanger
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2013-11-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1