In Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a hard-drinking, hard-drugging, promiscuous Texas good-old boy with a weakness for rodeo and anonymous, unprotected sex with strangers. It’s 1985, and the danger inherent in his lifestyle hasn’t managed to sink into Ron’s thick head. He and his pals make crude jokes about Rock Hudson, who has just outed himself as an AIDS victim. Then, when Ron is injured at his day job as an electrician, he gets a nasty surprise during what he expected would be a routine trip to the emergency room. Two doctors enter his cubicle wearing gloves and face masks, and they ask him if he knows that he’s HIV-positive. Ron’s reaction is immediate, angry, profane denial—“I ain’t no homo.” Nevertheless, they tell him he probably has only 30 days to live.
It’s based on a true story. The real Ron Woodroof died in 1992, having stretched those 30 days out to six years. Woodroof’s sister and daughter say that the original prognosis was for six months. Evidently, writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack shorted it to one month to increase the drama of Woodroof’s determination to survive. Neither the sister nor the daughter are represented in the movie, so it’s an open question exactly how much creative license Borten and Wallack have taken, but it hardly matters—the basic story is dramatic enough.
Woodroof originally embarked on a course of treatment with azidothymidine, known more commonly as AZT—at the time, the only Food and Drug Administration-approved drug for AIDS. When the AZT only made him sicker, Woodroof explored other treatments, including drugs that were available in other countries but not in the United States. In time, he established the Dallas Buyers Club for AIDS victims, getting around FDA regulations by charging a $400 monthly membership fee, then supplying the drugs for free.
This club, and Woodroof’s battles with the FDA bureaucracy and its pharmaceutical-company partners, form the spine of Borten and Wallack’s rather slow, episodic script. Director Jean-Marc Valée plods right along with the script, and the movie moves in fits and starts without building much momentum.
What makes Dallas Buyers Club a satisfying experience is its two key performances. Matthew McConaughey famously lost 50 pounds to play the wasted, emaciated Woodroof. His large, handsome head looks even larger poised on a scrawny neck and spindly shoulders that seem too weak and brittle to support it, and his sunken cheeks and eyes are almost painful to look at. Behind that startling exterior, however, McConaughey completes the process of rescuing his career from the junk pile it had fallen into with crap like The Wedding Planner and Failure to Launch, and where it threatened to stay. The rescue process started some time ago and includes his performances in Bernie, The Lincoln Lawyer, Mud, Magic Mike and others. McConaughey’s Woodroof is an antihero, a homophobic bigot and more than a little slimy, who finds a deepened humanity in the face of death. The actor doesn’t sentimentalize the character: He gives it to us straight.
The other performance is Jared Leto as Rayon, a transgendered woman, also suffering from AIDS, who meets Woodroof during their respective AZT treatments, later becomes a customer for his smuggled drugs, and finally his business partner in the club. Leto (who lost 30 pounds himself for the part) inhabits the role completely. Rayon is at once frail and spirited, courageous and terrified, tough and tender, funny and sad. There’s been Oscar buzz about both McConaughey (lead) and Leto (support) in Dallas Buyers Club. Frankly, I’d bet money on Leto.
There are good supporting performances as well from Jennifer Garner as a sympathetic doctor whose efforts on Woodroof and Rayon’s behalf puts her own career on the line, Steve Zahn as a cop buddy of Woodroof’s and Griffin Dunne as a medium-shady doctor dealing in black-market drugs from a grimy office in Mexico. But Dallas Buyers Club belongs pretty firmly to McConaughey and Leto. Their prickly relationship is at the wounded heart of the movie, and it’s their performances you’ll remember.