If there was any question Matthew McConaughey is not only having a comeback, but becoming one of today’s best working actors, one only needs to look at his recent filmography. Films like Bernie, Mud, and Killer Joe have found him moving away from his romantic-comedy image and towards more daring and serious affair. Dallas Buyers Club is another in a line of great films and boasts what may be a career best performance for McConaughey.
Based on the true story of Texas resident Ron Woodruff (McConaughey), the story concerns his diagnosis with AIDS and his struggle to stay alive. Not only is he given 30 days to live by Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), but the disease is still closely associated with homosexual behaviour in 1985, something that doesn’t sit well with the tough, bull riding southerner, nor his friends. While at first ignoring the diagnosis and continuing to drink and consume drugs heavily, he realizes the test results aren’t a mistake and begins researching the disease and how to treat it. Coming across a drug called AZT that Doctors Saks and Sevard happen to beginning a trial on — the only FDA approved AIDS drug at the time — Woodruff is unable to legally obtain any through the hospital so he gets them illegally but they begin to destroy his body.
After realizing the AZT is the reason his body his shutting down, he begins to learn more about other non-FDA approved drugs — mostly anti-viral — that work better to reduce the symptoms of his disease and prolong his life. Soon, he begins trafficking the drugs and along with another patient he met in the hospital, the cross dressing Rayon (Jared Leto), the two begin the Dallas Buyers Club, which becomes a direct competitor to the hospital’s care and the AZT trials.
Of course, much of the story involves the FDA and DEA going after Woodruff for, essentially, being a drug dealer. However, Woodruff insists it’s the FDA that’s peddling the drugs of big businesses who are more interested in reaping a profit than helping HIV and AIDS patients. The biggest thorn in their side, and in the side of Dr. Sevard, is that what Woodruff is “prescribing” actually seems to work better than the AZT. Dr. Saks is the only official that not only sees the downside of AZT, but begins to see that Woodruff may actually have some validity in what he’s doing.
It’s a fascinating story about the state of approved drugs in America and how what the FDA does isn’t always in line with reality. It also tells a more character driven story of Woodruff who begins like any other stereotypical Texas man who only ever wants to lay women, do drugs, drink with his buddies, and ride bulls. His drug business begins as a way to help himself and make money. But because many of his customers are gay — and being homophobic himself — he can’t ignore them as sufferers and human beings.
At first rebuffing Rayon’s attempts to become a business partner, having a lot of friends and connections who have HIV or AIDs, he reluctantly brings him in and is soon a close, personal friend. Woodruff is not only awakened to the red tape reality of US Government, but overcomes his own unacceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. His own diagnosis allows him to see that Rayon and others are no different than he is — people who just want to survive.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee does a fantastic job of keeping the film moving forward while the character development feels natural and earned. At times, Dr. Saks’ character does feel shoehorned in but only because Garner is mostly outside of the central action and some of her earlier scenes can feel like a step away from what’s really happening. At times, too, the film can seem to drag, especially in the middle once the Club begins taking off. The beginning moves so quickly yet builds the plot and characters so much, that once the Club is established some scenes can feel like treading water. It’s a minor complaint and one that never really derails the film.
Much talk will be about McConaughay and Leto’s dramatic weight loss for their roles. But that’s only a small part of their dedication to the roles. Both lose themselves in a way that transcends mere physical transformations — more so for Leto who’s not only thin but caked in makeup and dressed up in women’s clothing. It’s undeniably Leto’s best performance in years, if only because he’s been largely absent from film for quite some time. It’s McConaughey, though, who carries the film on his shoulders and proves that his recent move to serious roles is paying off. He’s always hinted at being more than a rom-com partner — Dazed and Confused comes to mind — but he’s finally manifesting that talent.
It’s the rare film that not only has a plot that’s captivating, but has characters that are subtly and substantially developed. Hopefully the dramatic physical changes McConaughey and Leto made for their roles aren’t the only aspects of the film that are talked about.
Rating: 4 out of 5