Silver Screen: Dallas Buyers Club ****
Within the first few minutes of Dallas Buyers Club, Ron Woodruff— a blue-collar Texan who lives for sex, drugs, and rodeo— is diagnosed with HIV. It’s a shocking moment for a heterosexual good ol’ boy living the low-rent Lone Star State dream circa 1985. His dispassionate doctors predict he has thirty days to live and suggest he get his affairs in order.
The real-life Woodruff stunned the experts by living for thousands more days. What’s most surprising about the film adaptation of his story, written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, is that it never for a second descends into maudlin sentimentality or buckles under the weight of its heavy premise. Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t just navigate the pathos of its premise, it bypasses it entirely, all in the fighting spirit of the irrepressible Woodruff.
Much has been made of the weight Matthew McConaughey shaved off to play the ailing trailer-park grifter, and certainly the physical transformation of the famously buff star is significant. But here the weight loss isn’t a gimmicky substitute for an actual performance, nor is his spindly state exploited for pangs of sympathy. A more manipulative movie would have lingered on his wasted frame, rib-sprung and sarcoma-ed, but McConaughey’s weight loss isn’t simply intended to convey the thralls of his illness. Instead it’s part of a more complete transformation of the actor into a convincingly slight, leathery man, one of those sun-dried southern boys who are all moustache, boots, and belt buckle. It’s a smashing success. McConaughey disappears into the role— and what a role it is.
Woodruff begins the movie as a self-reliant but unenlightened figure whose ambitions rarely extend beyond the next sunrise. He’s what your grandmother would have called riff-raff. His grim diagnosis doesn’t so much change his nature as reshape it. Mercifully, Dallas Buyers Club features no heartwarming Hallmark-stamped transformation. Woodruff doesn’t go to bed a southern-fried Scrooge and wake up buying Christmas lunch for his new friends down at the gay bar. Instead, he channels his miscreant’s resourcefulness into a struggle to survive, even to profit, and it is only when his inner world expands and his perspective is broadened that he undergoes the kind of slight, incremental change feature films so rarely chronicle.
Woodruff’s first order of business is to get his hands on some AZT, the then-experimental AIDS treatment just entering human trials. When hospital bureaucracy prevents him from enrolling in the study on a reasonable timeline, hey, no problem— Ron Woodruff has always been good at scoring drugs illegally, these are just pills of a different sort. His search for illicit remedies outside the purview of the Food and Drug Administration leads him to Mexico, where a disgraced doctor (Griffin Dune) helps turn him on to a more holistic approach. To finance his expensive treatment and trips south of the border, Ron begins sneaking extra doses of the new medications back stateside and selling them to the swelling underground population of gay men seeking any new way to fight the still-mysterious disease.
While running his unofficial pharmacy, dubbed the Dallas Buyers Club, out of a dilapidated two-story motel, Ron’s perspective is broadened. He comes to understand the frightening realities faced daily by the gay men living secret lives all around him, thanks in large part to his troubled transgendered business partner, Rayon (Jared Leto), and the sympathetic Doctor Saks (Jennifer Garner) helps him navigate the increasingly corrupted American healthcare system. Director Vallee stops short of turning his film into anticorporate agitprop, but the implications are clear: Big Pharma was prioritizing profit over lives to a stunning degree during the AZT trials, and it’s a trend that we realize, in hindsight, will not abate but worsen.
Dallas Buyers Club’s socio-political observations resonate so significantly because the filmmakers consistently prioritize the personal over the didactic. The strength of the film is McConaughey’s soulful performance and his credible, often very funny interactions with a never-better Leto. The results are deeply affecting and slyly inspiring, but as frank and unvarnished as Woodruff himself.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.