“Dallas Buyers Club” is an interesting movie that features some great performances, but doesn’t know exactly what it is trying to say.
Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, an electrician, bull rider, and lowlife who contracted AIDS in the 1980s. Woodroof was a real person and it is unclear if he was actually as big of a scumbag as the movie portrays.
“Dallas Buyers Club” shows Woodroof as a vain, homophobic, racist who slept around a lot and did a ton of drugs.
Yet he was also incredibly resourceful and smart because after given only 30 days to live, Woodroof threw himself into learning about his disease and what drugs were being used to treat it.
What he discovers is that some of the more effective drugs had not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration so they were unavailable in the United States.
He travels to Mexico for treatment and as his health improves he sees a ripe business opportunity back in the U.S. He smuggles the drugs back into Texas and sets up shop selling them to desperate AIDS patients in Dallas.
Woodroof discovers a legal loophole and creates the Dallas Buyers Club, where those with the disease pay a monthly “membership” fee and then are given the drugs to treat themselves. Since the drugs are not technically illegal, only unapproved, the FDA can’t do much to stop him.
“Dallas Buyers Club” really wants us to buy into the narrative that this is the story of a bad person humbled by disease who then becomes a good person, only that doesn’t really jive with what we are shown.
Woodroof does become less homophobic thanks to the fact that the vast majority of his clients are gay and he becomes friends and business partners with a transvestite named Rayon (played by Jared Leto). But not much else about him changes.
The movie also tries to come at this story from the angle of the little guy versus the establishment as Woodroof takes on everybody from doctors at the local hospital (played by Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare) to the pharmaceutical companies and the FDA.
But then Woodroof is raging against the machine, not for the greater good, but because they are messing with his business. This is even more problematic when you consider that changes in AIDS treatment and drug testing were brought about in reality by large organizations of AIDS patients and not the noble struggle of a lone, morally ambiguous Texan.
In spite of its shortcomings, when it comes to the big picture “Dallas Buyers Club” does a lot of the little things right. Director Jean-Marc Vallee hits all the right emotional beats and keeps the movie moving along at a good clip.
But what really elevates this movie are the performances, especially by McConaughey and Leto who both give arguably the best performances of their careers and who both might end up landing Academy Award nominations for their work.
Much has been made about all the weight McConaughey lost for this movie, and it does make for a shocking physical transformation. But what is truly impressive is how McConaughey embodies the desperation and ingenuity of a dying man forced to navigate through a world with which he is wholly unfamiliar.
Props to McConaughey for overcoming some bad career choices and the perils of superstardom (naked bongos anyone?) and becoming an actor fully aware of his strengths and weaknesses. The last few years have been the best of his career, and if “Dallas Buyers Club” is any indication, we can continue to expect great things from him in the future. All right, all right, all right.
“Dallas Buyers Club” is rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity, and drug use.