Jam-packed it with high drama, genuine laughs, and classic David-vs-Goliath appeal.
Dallas Buyers Club
Real-life figure Ron Woodruff was a self-proclaimed legend of the rodeo; a shit-kicking, wild-woman-wrangling, tough sumbitch who’d put up his dukes at the drop of a hat. In the mid-1980’s, the apex of the AIDS crisis in the U.S., Woodruff (who had been experiencing painful fainting spells but dismissed them due to a deadly cocktail of ego and denial) woke up in a hospital to the news that he’d been infected with HIV and had 30 days to live. His future looked bleak, but Ron was still Ron: “Ain’t nuthin’ out there can kill Ron Woodruff in 30 days,” he snaps with a smirk, tossing the test results back in the doctors’ faces.
In Dallas Buyers Club, we see Ron–played by a skeleton-like Matthew McConaughey in the role of a lifetime–discover his true nature; he’s always known how to survive, but with death at his door, he learns to thrive, and for all the right reasons. It’s a long journey–in the beginning, Ron’s a bigoted, ho-banging scumbag–but director Jean-Marc Valleé and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack plot his course nicely, jam-packing it with high drama, genuine laughs, and classic David-vs-Goliath appeal (if David wore cowboy boots.)
After illegally obtaining and downing a deadly dose of an AIDS drug called AZT (still in the preliminary stages of FDA approval), Ron finds himself in even worse condition than he was. He crosses the border to Mexico in a hail-Mary play and miraculously nurses himself back to health with a mixture of all-natural vitamins and supplements, and non-FDA-approved drugs. With the aid of a pretty doctor (Jennifer Garner) and an even prettier transsexual named Rayon (Jared Leto, in a stunner of a performance that’s both warm and troubling), he starts the titular club to get the drugs that helped him to other AIDS sufferers–for a price, of course. Ron Woodruff ain’t no saint. Yet.
As Ron’s business flourishes, we see bits of virtue slowly rise to the surface of his gruff exterior. At first an unquestionable homophobe, Ron starts building a kinship with all of his clients, regardless of sexual preference, most notably with the effeminate, street-savvy Rayon, whom he learns to hold closest to his heart. In the truest testament to their friendship, the duo run into one of Ron’s old redneck friends (Steve Zahn)–who ostracized him, presumptuously associating his diagnosis with homosexuality–on a grocery run. Ron cowboy’s-up, puts his ol’ buddy in a choke hold, and orders him to shake the hand of a quietly pleased Rayon. The crowd goes wild!
Leto and McConaughey make the icky medical jargon and mounds of data shoved down our throat tolerable (and even enjoyable) with their incredible performances. It’s common knowledge now that they’d both shed considerable weight for the roles, and the sacrifice paid off–they’re both startlingly unrecognizable and their slimmer frames add to the immersion. Couple that with their finely-tuned, detail-oriented acting, and you’ve got two towering performances that won’t only earn them Oscar nods–they’ll define their careers. They may look gaunt and frail, but they handle the emotional heavy-lifting with ease.
McConaughey deserves any and all accolades and flattery he’ll no doubt receive in the coming months (and years.) His famous southern drawl, and lazy charm–signature traits that sometimes grate against other roles he’s played–fit Ron Woodruff like a tailor-made rodeo glove. In the simplest terms, he was born to be in this movie. Leto’s charm is equally potent, but polarized; he matches McConaughey’s libidinous machismo with alluring femininity, gentleness, and the occasional brooding. I imagine most directors would choose to hinge the film on the McConaughey-Garner relationship, but Valleé keeps the romance light, showcasing the touching, unlikely relationship between Ron and Rayon instead. Smart, smart choice.
Despite the colorful performances of the leading men, the film stays grounded, never veering into melodrama or overt sentimentality. I went into the film half expecting a Hollywood ham-fest, but Valleé and his team prove to have sharper taste than that. When characters die, it’s a sobering jolt, not a tear-soaked call to the heavens set to a bittersweet string arrangement. Ron’s body wastes away as he simultaneously fights off AIDS and the FDA (who want nothing more than to bust his burgeoning business) over the course of years, though he never pities himself nor asks for it. Valleé doesn’t ask us for pity either. Ron Woodruff died in 1992, 7-years later than doctors assured him he would leave this world. “Ain’t nuthin’ out there can kill Ron Woodruff in 30 days.” The man speaks the truth.