by Steve Habrat
After refreshing his career with his buzzed-about supporting role in Mud, Matthew McConaughey brought his career-high year to a close with director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Based on an extraordinary true story, Dallas Buyers Club is an addicting drama that follows Ron Woodroof, a hard-living and homophobic electrician/bull rider who was unexpectedly diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s. Peppered with quirky characters and spilling confidence, Dallas Buyers Club has nudged its way up the list of the best films of 2013 with the absolutely mesmerizing performances from both McConaughey, who underwent a drastic physical transformation for his lead role, and actor/rock star Jared Leto, who is nearly unrecognizable as a transgender woman who becomes the cowboy’s unlikely ally. Considering that the film is tackling such grave subject matter, Dallas Buyers Club never even considers sending the audience away staring down at their shoes. Sure there are emotional blows that break your heart, but Vallée excels when the story is optimistic and uplifting, reassuring the audience that even when the odds are stacked against you, you are still capable of making a difference, especially when we set aside our differences and work together.
Dallas Buyers Club begins in 1985 and introduces us to Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), a booze-swilling, coke-snorting electrician/bull rider who relishes the company of lovely ladies. After a nasty accident at work, Ron is sent to the ER, where a simple blood test reveals that the reckless cowboy is HIV-positive and has only 30 days to live. Reluctant to believe that the test was accurate, he instantly gets back to his partying ways, but after remembering he had unprotected sex with an intravenous drug user, he slowly comes to terms with his current situation. After learning about the new drug ATZ, which is said to prolong the life of those who are HIV-positive, Ron enlists a hospital employee to sneak him bottles of the drug under the table. After taking ATZ for an extended period, Ron realizes that his health is getting worse rather than improving. Ron’s poor health soon lands him back in the hospital under the care of Dr. Eve Saks (played by Jennifer Garner), who reveals that the combination of cocaine and ATZ has been making his situation worse. While recovering in the hospital, the extremely homophobic Ron meets Rayon (played by Jared Leto), a transgender woman who is also HIV-positive. After taking a trip to Mexico to obtain medicine, Ron learns of the devastating side effects of ATZ. In place of ATZ, Ron is recommended several other drugs that are not approved by the FDA. With the new drugs improving Ron’s health, he forms an unlikely partnership with Rayon, and the two begin smuggling in the drugs to sell to other HIV-positive patients.
Initially, Dallas Buyers Club hits us with an array of emotions that rattle us in a number of different ways. We’re disoriented with shock as Ron learns of his serious condition, and his quick defense of denial is certainly understandable. He storms off in disbelief at the mere suggestion of him being HIV-positive, laughing off the diagnosis as something that only homosexuals can get. He then quickly drowns his sorrows in powder, liquor, and skin, drunkenly telling one of his close friends about the news. Ron’s denial and anger are quickly relieved by realization as he remembers having unprotected sex with a woman with some nasty looking needle marks on her foot. This realization shifts to explosive grief and anger as his friends grow increasingly hostile towards him, viciously mocking and humiliating him. They scoot their chairs away from him when he joins them at the bar, he’s chased out of work, and he’s booted from his trailer park home. The blows that Ron have been dealt finally soften when he stops taking the ATZ he’s been slipped under the table and makes major changes in his lifestyle. This is where the film gains confidence and southern swagger, emitting sugary charms, upbeat chuckles, and relentless determination.
At the heart of all this southern swagger and sugary charm is McConaughey, who gives the best performance of the year as Ron Woodroof. At first, Woodroof is sort of a tough character to root for. He’s wildly homophobic and sleazy, having sweaty threesomes, chugging bottle after bottle of liquor, snorting cocaine, and getting himself into gambling trouble. When he finally accepts his new disease and vows to live past the 30 days he’s been given, the magnetism is as powerful as ever and we find ourselves on team Woodroof. He becomes even more lovable when he reluctantly joins forces with Leto’s Rayon, a sweet and childlike soul who shatters Ron’s seething disgust for homosexuals. Like the scrawny and drawling McConaughey, Leto undergoes a shocking transformation that will absolutely blow you away. Watching him push all of Ron’s buttons is absolutely uproarious, and it’s certainly heartwarming to see Ron soften to his flamboyant partner in crime. Leto’s unforgettable performance hits its high note during a tearjerker meeting with his disapproving father, who sighs with exasperation right in his son’s face. It’s a sequence that leaves your frozen in place. Also on board is Jennifer Garner, who warms the heart as Dr. Saks, a close friend of the delicate Rayon and a growing supporter for Ron’s crusade.
While Dallas Buyers Club is certainly inspirational, there are still plenty of scenes that show the terrible symptoms of this dreaded disease. The symptoms are shown in a raw and horrifyingly realistic manner, from deep coughs, to crippling headaches, to dark splotches on the frail skin—one symptom more terrifying than the last. It’s through this glimpse of the symptoms that Vallée milks huge amounts of empathy from the audience. You’ll also find yourself struck by the bravery of these infected characters, willing to fight until their last tearful breath. Unsurprisingly, Dallas Buyers Club does take a stand against homophobia, and it certainly never misses a moment to remind us that we should all set aside our differences and live in harmony. The message side of the film is certainly expected, especially since gay rights have been a hot topic over the past few years, but Vallée keeps a firm grip on things and prevents the message from feeling redundant. Overall, while it dares to address dark subject matter, Dallas Buyers Club is a superbly directed story that instantly sucks you in. Its outlaw strut gives it a singular glow, and the performances from McConaughey and Leto rank as some of the most outstanding acting work I’ve seen in ages.