Subdued, determined, tangy, and entirely watchable, Dallas Buyers Club is a fierce celebration of the power of the outcast and a scathing indictment of the function of the medical-pharmaceutical complex in exacerbating the AIDS crisis.
It tells the story of Ron Woodroof, an electrician and rodeo rider, part womanizer and part entrepreneur, who received a diagnosis of HIV in 1985. Given 30 days to live, he responded to his disease by helping hundreds of others flaunt the system and obtain medication not legally available in the US at the time. The way the film tells it, Ron was a charismatic character, snorting coke and stealing AZT vials and sneaking across the border disguised as a cancer-stricken priest.
As Woodroof, Matthew McConaughey is cocky, rowdy, flamboyant, profane, unrepentant, coke-snorting, and skinny as a whippet. McConaughey does the heavy lifting, and his shoulders are capable and graceful. (He lost almost 40 pounds in preparation.) Capping off a startling graduation from the shirtless rom-com Romeo of the last decade to indie actor du jour, his is a valiant, drastic, and utterly credible inhabiting of a doomed fighter. His turns as a reckless gun-for-hire in Killer Joe, as a strip-club showman in Magic Mike, as a DA in Bernie, and as a lovelorn outlaw in Mud culminate in this apogee of a career change, rightly expected to receive Oscar attention in March.
Thirteen years after involvement in a bleak hellhole of a drug movie – a Hubert Selby adaptation by a rising star director named Darren Aronofsky which now boasts one of the most recognizable scores of all time – Jared Leto (The Thin Red Line, Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream) finally tears into another meaty role and shines as Rayon. If Ron is the Club’s guts, Rayon is its heart. The most devastating scene, which occurs in a grocery story, registers not in the violent confrontation between Woodroof and an obstinate homophobe, but when the camera swings back to Leto’s face and catches his pleasure and joy as Woodroof becomes ally, defender, and friend. There’s good reason that Leto is expected to take home Supporting Actor gold for his work.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée falls short in terms of historical chronicle, emotional wallop, and information delivery, limited by the facts. The direction is bland and pandering, reviving the ancient stereotype of a tragic transgender person who suffers operatically and depends on the kindness of strangers. It’s long – the artistic community seriously needs to find some better editors, or at least people more vicious in the cutting room – and all flailing angles and elbows, earning emotion through sheer pragmatism.
But McConaughey and Leto are Vallée’s saviours, rescuing the belabored formula and the lackluster Jennifer Garner, and guiding the audience to an affecting conclusion. While its determination to play it safe confines it to decency, an imperfect story about a vital chapter of the late 20th century should not be ignored. Dallas Buyers Club is a terrific yarn with twitchy-good, agonizingly alive performances.