This real life story of one man’s battle against big pharma and the medical establishment after he is diagnosed HIV positive is chaotic, funny and life-affirming in the face of death. It ducks sentimentality, covers everything in an inky black humour, and features two powerhouse performances from Oscar-bound leads Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto
Former rom-com bait McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, the Texan redneck who was diagnosed HIV+ in 1986 and took on big pharma and the clientele medical profession to prolong his own life while also helping countless fellow HIV patients left desperate in the face of officialdom’s panicked reaction to the AIDS virus.
McConaughey is extraordinary as Woodroof, a thoroughly despicable human being - an all-out Texan renegade who hustles, gambles, womanises, and drinks and snorts his way through life. When he’s not reeling in and out of a twilight world in his trailer and neighbourhood bars, he’s an amateur rodeo rider and also holds down a job as an electrician on the local oilrigs
We first clap eyes on him at a Dallas rodeo. He’s fleeing his debtors, engaging in a brutish sexual encounter under the bleachers, and then leading the taunts and gay bashing after the news comes through that all-American icon of masculinity Rock Hudson has contracted the new “gay” disease, AIDS.
Woodroof is a good ole boy bristlin’ with Lone Star credentials for sure but something is very wrong here. Even in the early scenes of Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof looks awful - his cheeks are hollowed out, his limbs protrude starkly from his clothes, and he is often violently ill. And then there are the frequent blackouts.
When a work-related injury lands him in hospital, he is very quickly informed that he is HIV positive and only has thirty days to live. Naturally, Woodroof flies into immediate and angry denial and the very worst of his persona boils to the surface as he rails in disbelief. However, his blunt refusal to go gently into the night will completely transform him - the snaggle-toothed and racoon-like Woodroof may be an objectionable bundle of prejudices but he is no dummy.
When his initial demands for treatment with unapproved meds are rejected by the Food and Drug Administration and his own doctors, he simply begins importing highly-effective anti-retroviral drugs from all over the world himself. It is the start of the Dallas-based network that will become one of the many buyers clubs which sprung up across the States in the eighties as AIDS cases multiplied at an alarming rate leaving the authorities immobilised with panic.
Woodroof’s course of action would eventually place him up against not only the FDA, but the DEA, the FBI and the IRS as he slipped through bureaucratic nets and bent the law in his sheer will to survive.
Dallas Buyers Club is very good on many different levels. It’s a great underdog movie, a great take down (and send-up) of the bickering and paranoia of big pharma and law-enforcement agencies, and it is also the strangest and most likeable buddy movie in a long time. At the essentially soft centre of the film is Woodroof’s relationship with fellow AIDS patient Rayon, a transsexual drug addict played with real poise and diva-like fabulousness by a revelatory Jared Leto.
The cowboy and the queen make a compelling couple as Woodroof’s rampant homophobia vanishes in face of common goals and experiences and the pair enter into business selling memberships of the Buyers Club and access to vital meds.
A morbid theme it may be but this is supercharged fun shot through with bawdy humour and spiky dialogue. In lesser hands it may have meandered into sanctimonious message movie territory by the third act. Instead, director Jean-Marc Vallée ducks the usual sentimentality, helped no doubt by the fact that he shot the whole film on a $5 million budget in a scant 25 days. No customary lighting setups were used and Woodroof’s story is told in a chaotic rush with a gripping and grainy verité style.
But it is McConaughey who is the fast-beating heart of the story. Aside from his dramatic and frankly disturbing weight loss, he is magnetic as the good ole boy turned unlikely crusader and this is the finest moment yet in his extraordinary rebirth as a very, very good actor. Dallas Buyers Club is a romp of a movie about death with a great big feel-good factor.