Dallas Buyers Club tells the extraodinary and true tale of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texan hustler who lives fast and appears to be doomed to die young when one of his countless, condomless escapades results in an infection with HIV. Woodroof isn’t a nice or relatable man by a long shot: he cons people out of money and uses it to pay for alcohol, cocaine and girls. He is also, largely due to the reality of his sociocultural circumstances, a massive homophobe.
When he is diagnosed with AIDS and told that he only has thirty days left to live, he first goes through the familiar stages of denial and anger. It is the third stage, bargaining, that becomes the most intriguing, and the driving force for the rest of Woodroof’s life. He soon learns that the FDA hasn’t approved many of the drugs available to HIV patients abroad and that, in fact, the drugs given to him at the hospital have only made his situation more dire. Being the hustler that he is, he makes a business deal with a doctor in Mexico to smuggle back pills and sell them to other patients. Because selling non-approved drugs is illegal, he creates the Dallas Buyers Club with the help of his transgender business partner Rayon (Jared Leto). This cunning trick allows them to sell montly memberships and provide the drugs for free. Of course, neither the FDA nor big pharma nor the hospital doctors are too happy about this and keep throwing stones in their way.
McConaughey delivers what will surely turn out to be a career-defining performance as a scaringly emaciated yet emotionally ablaze character who goes from homophobic rodeo cowboy to business yuppie. Indeed, more than his business acumen, Woodroof’s transformation from homophobe to humanitarian makes for an intriguing plot. This metamorphosis culminates when Ron and Rayon run into one of his old acquaintances at the supermarket: when his friend refuses to “shake a faggot’s hand”, Ron wrestles him down and forces him to do just that. To the film’s credit, it however refrains from pretending that Ron’s change of heart is anything but a selfish one: it wouldn’t have ever occurred hadn’t his suffering overlapped with theirs.
Jared Leto’s performance as Rayon is compelling and crushingly authentic. But – and it’s a big but – you also can’t help but wonder whether there wasn’t any transgender actor who could have done a better job. It’s impressive that the make-up budget was a mere $250, but for a film in which its characters fight so hard against social stigma it’s incredibly sad that the director Jean-Marc Vallée and his producers fell short of using such a perfect opportunity to fight a stigma themselves. This matter, sadly, distracts greatly from Leto’s acting, but perhaps it’s asking too much of Hollywood (although it really isn’t).
There is a subtle but important juxtaposition between Leto and McConaughey’s characters: the former is driven by a desperation to not die, while the latter is driven by his rage to live. Rayon hides the fear behind flamboyance, Ron makes no attempt to hide his anger at the disease, the FDA and the hospital staff – but in the end, they both are the same: they want to live. Indeed, neither McConaughey nor Leto ever play people who are ill, they play people who have an insatiable hunger for life. The sadness lies in the audience’s knowledge that their wish won’t be granted.
The rest of the cast is, unfortunately, almost entirely forgettable because the script doesn’t give them much character depth. Denis O’Hare does his best to portray a nemesis as a doctor who believes he is helping patients but has become corrupted by the lies of big pharma. Jennifer Garner’s character might have been meant as the audience’s point-of-view as she goes from critical doctor to supporting Ron’s quest to import non-approved drugs, but she disappears almost entirely under McConaughey’s tour-de-force every time she is on screen.
Dallas Buyers Club might not make you cry (although Rayon’s death will definitely bring you very close to tears), but you won’t walk out with a smile on your face either. As life-affirming as it is, and despite some comical moments (notably when Ron dresses up as a priest to smuggle drugs across the Mexican-American border) it is, and throughout the film always stays, a tragedy. Vallée’s direction is remarkably held-back and almost plain, allowing McConaughey to dominate the screen and carry the film with the performance of a life-time.