A film review by Craig J. Koban December 13, 2013 

RANK: #17


2013, R,  117 mins.


Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof  /  Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks  /  Jared Leto as Rayon  /  Dallas Roberts as David Wayne  /  Steve Zahn as Tucker  /  Griffin Dunne as Dr. Vass

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée  /  Written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is the reality based story of Ron Woodroof, a hard-drinking, drug abusing, and toxically homophobic country boy from Texas that – in the mid 1980’s – contracted AIDS via unprotected sex and was given just 30 days to live.  After initial denial of actually having the disease gave way to acceptance, Ron decided to take matters into his own hands in terms of treating his disease, especially since the FDA approved drugs he was taking made him sicker.  He elected to smuggle in non-FDA approved treatments and, in the process, secretly helped hundreds of other AIDS sufferers – gay and straight.  This got him into serious hot water with the FDA, but Ron’s efforts extended his life for years.  He died in 1992, a far cry later than the one-month life expectancy he was given. 

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, directed with flair, energy, and great forward momentum by Quebec’s Jean-Marc Vallee, has an endlessly compelling set-up and payoff.  As a biographical drama, it not only recreates and establishes the paranoid climate of AIDS-afflicted America in the 1980’s (a time when the diseases was largely and ignorantly assumed to be a gay affliction), but it also grounds us in the extraordinary personal transformation of Ron Woodroof himself.  This man is introduced in the film as a ruggedly macho and an unsavorily hedonistic pig of man that hated gays, but as it progresses and he comes to grips with his own AIDS affliction he learns respect and tolerance for the homosexual community and for all others that have the dreaded disease.  The fact that Vallee’s film paints this inspirational portrait without succumbing to false feel-good schmaltz and sentimentality is to his credit.  

The film opens in 1985, which is a noteworthy time because Hollywood screen icon Rock Hudson – whom once personified the ideal visage of masculine movie star glamour – was revealed to be gay and dying of AIDS.  Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a wild and reckless living cowboy that loves rodeos and works as an electrician.  When he’s not drunk or high on drugs, he’s engaging in nightly flings with multiple women.  He gets a highly rude awakening when doctors tell him – after testing his blood during a visit to the hospital for a workplace accident – that he has AIDS, which leaves Ron both mystified and shocked.  At first, the deeply prideful anti-gay-everything roughneck can’t possibly believe that he has the disease because he’s straight, but when a bit of library research proves that hetero men can become afflicted, Ron goes into crisis mode. 



Treatment options are few and far between, and Ron’s health soon deteriorates the more he’s put on AZT, an FDA approved treatment that’s actually doing him more harm than good.  Even though one of his kindly doctors, Saks (Jennifer Garner) begins to see the reality of AZT’s effects, she’s nonetheless left powerless to prescribe any non-FDA approved methods.  This springs the desperate Ron into action with an ingenious scheme.  Realizing that there are drugs that are not approved in the U.S. that are available in Mexico, Ron takes a risky chance and smuggles some of these alternative treatment methods back stateside, which do manage to not only work, but they also extend his lifespan.  Alas, he’s not done there.  Understanding the need to expose the FDA’s spotty treatment drugs while helping other fellow AIDS sufferers, Ron starts up the “Dallas Buyers Club" that sells $400 memberships to afflicted patients so that they cam have access to the non-FDA approved drugs that he has in his possession.  Selling the drugs is illegal and would net Ron a prison sentence, but selling drug access memberships to people…that’s a sly legal loophole. 

The whole intrinsically fascinating angle to DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is seeing Ron transform himself from a man approaching certain death to one that cheats it (or postpones it) by setting up his very own drug industry that does manage to help people in the ways that doctors and the FDA can’t.  The movie casts a revealing spotlight on how the FDA and pharmaceutical companies at the time often conspired together for less than moral imperatives when it came to the actual treatment of dying patients.  Beyond that, Ron’s personal journey from trailer trash hooligan to a sympathetic crusader and AIDS treatment activist is arguably DALLAS BUYERS CLUB’s most noteworthy story thread.  Perhaps the most unusual relationship that pays off the most in the film is one between Ron and a local transsexual, Rayon (Jared Leto), whom is also ravaged by AIDS.  They become not only unlikely business partners, but touchingly close allies in their respective fight to save themselves from death. 

Much has been made of  McConaughey’s skeletal appearance in the film, and he certainly belongs on a short list of actors that have lost an unhealthy amount of weight for a role (remember Christian Bale’s shocking visage in THE MACHINIST?).  Sometimes, steadfast – and perhaps fanatical – dedication to rapidly transforming oneself physically for a role can easily be mistaken for being great performance art.  Yet, McConaughey’s astounding makeover here is both inside and out, as he not only credibly sheds away his hunky façade to plausibly inhabit the look of an AIDS victim, but he also has to immerse himself within all of Ron’s emotional contradictions.  He makes this character wholeheartedly dislikeable and then thoroughly makes his spiritual redemption rousing without completely softening up his rough edges.  This is yet another one of those thanklessly great performances by McConaughey that goes to prove – just as he did with this year’s MUD and last year’s KILLER JOE – that his career rejuvenation into a respected actor of daring range and intrepid skill is no fluke. 

Equally tremendous in the film is the almost unrecognizable Leto as Ron’s confidant and business partner, and he certainly gives so much enveloping depth and sentiment to a character that, under a lesser actor’s hands, could have been reduced to a petty and laughable caricature.  Not only does Leto bring a hysterical level of loveably sarcastic charm to his doomed character, but he also manages to render him with a heartbreaking pathos.  Jennifer Garner’s role as the doctor that befriends both Ron and his cause is one of the trickier ones in the film (she’s not so much an obligatory love interest as she is just a caring, but pragmatic, friend), but she has an understated way of making a stock character feel like a genuine addition to the scenes she inhabits.  

Even though DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB teeters towards narrative predictability at times (like with the fairly preordained confrontations that Ron has with the FDA and subsequent court room proceedings), Vallee’s swiftly assured and confident film thankfully never focuses too much on such contrivances.  The film, no doubt, is greatly assisted by two toweringly great Oscar nomination worthy turns by McConaughey and Leto to lead the charge of this involving true-life tale of overcoming enormous odds in the face of debilitating physical aliments.  Even though Ron Woodroof remains a wise-talking Dallas-born and bred hustler throughout the film, he nonetheless changes who he is inside to better himself and those around him, and McConaughey’s dazzling and memorable performance evokes this through and through.h. 

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