When life hits you hard, sometimes you’ve just gotta grab it by the horns and run with it–even if it runs you across the border to pick up illegal drugs.
Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club is a tale of struggle during the onset of the AIDS epidemic, and how one man’s ailment led to a city-wide battle for life.
Homophobic and racist rodeo fiend Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) was living the life of thrills in 1980s Texas: he has a steady job as an oil rig electrician and spent his free time enjoying gambling, booze, and women. Despite the occasional nausea and fainting episodes, Woodroof hits the ground running and lives his life in the most reckless ways possible–that is, until his life finally catches up to him.
A work-related accident sends him to the hospital for recovery, where Woodroof learns the unfortunate news that he’s HIV-positive and has only a projected 30 days left to live. Unwilling to accept the news, he lashes out against his doctors Saks and Sevard (Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare, respectively) and storms out of the facility. But as the days pass by and Woodroof’s physical condition begins to deteriorate, he becomes convinced that his doctors may’ve been right. He begs Dr. Saks for the experimental drug AZT, which is currently being tested on AIDS patients in the hospital, but she refuses. Finding himself ostracized from his friends with no one to turn to, Woodroof seeks out help in Mexico with non-FDA-approved drugs and vitamins from an unlicensed practitioner (Griffin Dunne).
Having survived past his assumed final 30 days, Woodroof figures he’ll make his remaining time worthwhile and convinces the unlicensed doctor to transport his medicine back into the U.S. for a dealer’s fee. Once in Texas, Woodroof sets up shop as a Buyers Club manager, selling monthly memberships to AIDS and HIV-positive individuals for access to his unsanctioned treatments. Teaming up with a transgender woman named Rayon (Jared Leto) to help run the business, Woodroof is once again living the life of excitement as he makes large sums of money while keeping the feds at bay.
Part of what makes the film so peculiar is the character of Woodroof. It’s established from the opening of the film that he’s a pathetic low-life character and that fact isn’t disputed until much later. He lives dangerously–not in the sense of adrenaline-seeker or extreme-adventurer, but instead by swindling money out of his fellow rodeo hands, abusing narcotics, and engaging in copious amounts of unprotected sex. He lives through selfish impulse and treats others with the lowest amounts of respect, and even though he does have friends, they’re few and far between. By the end of the film, we find ourselves giving sympathy towards this raggedy rodeo man–not because of what he’s lost, but because of how he’s changed.
The film shines as an exceptional study of a dynamic character. Vallée, along with writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, spread Woodroof’s character growth thinly yet evenly throughout the entire film. This allows for very steady and gradual development, which runs contrary to the typical single events in films of this nature that immediately send the protagonist reeling in the opposite emotional direction. Woodroof slowly realizes that his own struggles are part of a much larger issue and that his hatred towards non-heterosexual people will only hinder his progress in solving it. McConaughey portrays this gradual change with great ease and subtlety, shifting from malice to benevolence over the course of the film.
Leto also provides a terrific performance as Rayon, the drug-addicted transgender woman with whom Woodroof sparks up an unusual business partnership. Rayon provides a more light-hearted and optimistic angle to Woodroof’s serious and unwelcoming demeanor, the contrast of which offers a decent amount of comic relief. However, she also provides her share of dramatic prowess, which Leto showcases with impressive finesse.
Though beyond the performances and intriguing character analyses, the film follows standard biopic formulas. Capable direction and supporting performances make this a well-rounded dramatic work but don’t particularly make the film stand out. However, that doesn’t nullify its value as entertaining cinema. Its terrific leads carry the story and make this a satisfying–if not somewhat heartbreaking–real-life drama.