In a time when TV is dominated by shows about morally twisted main characters you can’t help but root for, “Dallas Buyers Club” fits right in, plus it adds a layer of historical relevance and social responsibility those shows usually lack.
Matthew McConaughey, another rising trend unto himself, stars as Texan Ron Woodruff, electrician and rodeo bull-rider whose loose ways with drugs and women lead him to contract HIV. By the time he discovers he has it, it’s full-blown AIDS, and the doctors give him 30 days to live. Both outraged and desperate to prolong his life, he researches the disease and discovers AZT, a drug currently in trials, is the only medication available in the United States. Unable to scrounge some up with any consistency, Woodruff heads to Mexico and smuggles in unapproved drugs, enough to sell them to others who have HIV/AIDS. He establishes a “buyers club” so that he isn’t selling drugs to clients (illegal), but instead selling a membership to a club that gives clients access to drugs.
If McConaughey has reached an apex with his string of independent roles in the last few years, this film is it. In “Dallas Buyers Club,” he works his “alright alright alright” machismo into a complex character who undergoes a major transformation from the story’s start to its end. Considering AIDS was largely known as a problem in the gay community at the time, Woodruff was incensed at the notion that he could have it. Eventually, however, through getting to know a number of LGBT individuals including Rayon (Jared Leto), his transgender business partner, he comes to love and defend them. McConaughey makes this real and sincere, with help from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s screenplay.
The story jumps forward often to show the highlights and lowlights of Woodruff’s operation. Woodruff, it seems, is both the film’s protagonist and antagonist. More often than not, his reckless handling of untested drugs is what lands him in trouble, whether in the hospital or the hands of the FDA. His cyclical behavior pattern provides the ups and downs of the plot, and allows him to build relationships with the supporting players including Leto and Jennifer Garner, who plays a doctor at Woodruff’s near-most hospital.
“Dallas Buyers Club” is McConaughey’s show, but Leto in particular does a nice job winning the audience over. Rayon has some challenging, eye-opening scenes as well as some intense personal moments, and Leto becomes her with a certain subtlety. There’s no question the bulk of his praise comes unwarranted from simple-minded audiences who believe it’s impressive and brave for a straight man to play a transgender character, but he does a lot of things well in the role that the attention isn’t completely misguided.
Nothing that director Jean-Marc Vallee (“The Young Victoria”) does is especially noteworthy, but “Dallas Buyers Club” is a tight and well-told package of a film that utilizes strong storytelling technique and editing and provides some insight into a period of all-too-recent history. It runs clean start to finish without any notable blemishes, which is of course an achievement unto itself.
McConaughey’s performance will be forever remembered as the memorable achievement of “Dallas Buyers Club,” but it’s a pristine piece of filmmaking that does the little things right from the script to the editing to the makeup. It doesn’t reach the echelon of great modern period pieces, but it deserves the label of a great film.
Dallas Buyers Club
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto