It’s 1986, just months after Rock Hudson‘s death brings AIDS to its biggest public attention yet, but as far as Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is concerned, the real tragedy is the number of Hollywood babes the legendary actor could’ve easily bedded if he was straight. Along with cocaine, booze and whatever else can give him a good time, sex is an addiction for the Texas man, who seems to have been born with a cowboy hat on his head, a Budweiser in his hand and one eye constantly on the opposite sex. He’s a good ol’ boy and hustler, playing for and betting on anything. His rundown trailer is merely where he lays his head between the bar, his work as an electrician and wherever else his adventures might take him. But lately he’s been getting rail thin, coughing a lot and even passing out. It’s only after a freak electrical accident on a work site that he winds up being seen by a doctor, and a brief high voltage jolt is the least of his problems. He’s got HIV, and he’s given 30 days to live.
Based on a true story, the film from Jean-Marc Vallee doesn’t waste much time in getting right down to business, and frankly, Woodruff himself isn’t waiting around to die either. As the quick-but-effective pre-diagnosis opening of the film confirms, Woodruff usually knows all the angles, the right people and can talk the skin off a snake if he needed to. So that he’s in the library doing research mere days after getting the bad news isn’t a surprise. Nor is it a particular eye-opener that as a dying man, he’ll do whatever it takes to get his hands on the latest medicine that could possibly save his life. But even Woodruff—the son of an electrician and painter—couldn’t have imagined he’d soon be supplying the community suffering from AIDS in Dallas with non-FDA approved drugs that have been proven effective in helping manage and fight HIV. Nor could he have dreamed that this initial get-rich-quick scheme (that also happens to save his own life) would take him to Israel, Japan, Germany, federal court and more.
But if there’s one thing the script by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack makes clear, it’s that Woodruff is a man not given to predictable, rational or conventional behavior. Played by a (sometimes) skeletal McConaughey (whose body weight fluctuates depending on where Woodruff is in his journey), the role taps right into the easy-to-pour Southern charm and bundled wire of energy of the actor. Backed by these traits, Woodruff is an immensely likable character, even what he’s at his homophobic worst, and that’s because of McConaughey’s careful character work (and that of the script too) that refuses to lionize the man. He was an entrepreneur, amateur scientist and more, but also selfish and sometimes coldly distant from the people who were getting his help. And while he borrowed the idea to create a club with a paid monthly membership, in which members got access to meds, as a way to run around drug dealing laws, the endeavor also served his own ends as well. Though Woodruff had the spirit of a lone wolf and wild card, he didn’t act alone.
In what is often a scene-stealing performance, and one that surprisingly has the most emotional weight of the film, Jared Leto‘s turn as the transvestite Rayon is one of rich warmth and humor. First meeting Ron in the hospital, the two soon forge a partnership, with Rayon recruiting clients for Woodruff’s drugs in the gay community in the pre-Buyer’s Club days. But as that trust in each other is established, their partnership grows into a friendship, something that even surprises Ron, whose default reaction to gays for much of his life being one of instant revulsion. And soon the pair are working hand in glove at their Buyers Club. And Leto’s performance makes it easy to see how his coy, flirtatious manner broke down the wall Ron generally holds up around himself; Rayon is just as slick an operator, but neither he or Ron can fool Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). A doctor at the forefront of research into new AIDS drugs being developed, she soon becomes a compassionate advocate, one of the few in the industry, who realizes that bureaucracy is costing thousands upon thousands their lives.
And that’s the undercurrent of the Jean-Marc Vallee-directed film, that never feels like a “message movie.” Instead, it’s the story of one man fighting for his literal survival, and another of an era which found the medical establishment deeply failing a staggering number of Americas dying in droves from a deadly disease. Vallee creates a Texas of a specific time and place, and gets the smallest details right when it comes to capturing the atmosphere of AIDS at the time. Woodruff’s former friends keep a wide physical distance and ultimately exile the man, while doctors’ cold compassion comes with a mask over their face, just in case. Even Woodruff himself early on finds it hard to believe that he’s been struck down by a disease thought to just affect gays. It’s a lived in moment of time, and a truly fascinating true story of one man’s courage and determination in the harrowing face of certain death.
That being said, despite the fine performances from McConaughey and Leto, tightly coiled editing that keeps the story moving and a nicely measured balance between drama and comedy (McConaughey is often a hoot), “Dallas Buyers Club” still sometimes feels like it’s missing one more grace note. Most specifically, for a man that outlived what doctors predicted by seven whole years, the picture is often so busy detailing Woodruff’s latest maneuvers in court and with his clients, to make the gravity of that achievement felt. While Woodruff certainly uses that fact as a weapon against the doctors and regulators who want to keep pumping the pharma pushed but deadly toxic AZT, he certainly must have privately felt astonished or at least relieved. While the film does allow some private moments with Woodruff, it could’ve used a bit more. It’s somewhat telling that we learn more of Rayon’s family backstory than we do of Woodruff, who is supposed to be the lead.
However, while the film might not drop the cumulative emotional anchor you may expect (the ending is rather abrupt), it’s a smartly entertaining tale, delivered with respect for its subject matter, but also wisely knows you can be fun and funny even in the arena of an AIDS drama. For Vallee, it’s another step for the Canadian filmmaker towards a Hollywood that seems to be beckoning, and this could be his calling card, while for McConaughey it’s another achievement in his quickly diversifying body of work. As for everyone else? Just trust the doctor’s prescription to see “Dallas Buyers Club” when it plays at a theater near you. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.