If you know only one thing about Dallas Buyers Club, it’s probably that Matthew McConaughey lost 40 pounds to play an AIDS patient. That’s true, but there’s a great deal more to both this film and his work than that. McConaughey won much attention last year with a quartet of excellent performances (in Bernie, Magic Mike, The Paperboy, and Killer Joe) that showed a dramatic range that we hadn’t seen from the actor when he was headlining the likes of Sahara and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Still, even his work last year won’t prepare you for the ferocity and naked desire to live that this often laid-back actor shows in this drama, which opens in Tarrant County this week.
The film is based on the life of Ron Woodroof, who’s played by McConaughey as a shiftless, coke-snorting electrician and rodeo cowboy in 1985. Landing in Dallas Mercy Hospital after an electric shock, he learns that his sudden weight loss and persistent cough are due to him having full-blown AIDS. He’s given 30 days to live. As the federal government invests its hopes for a cure in AZT despite that drug’s toxic side effects, a desperate Ron finds more effective drugs in Mexico and sees an opportunity to both heal himself and make some money by smuggling them across the border.
Don’t go looking for local landmarks in this movie; it was shot in New Orleans. French-Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (whose last film was the impressive French-language puzzle movie Café de Flore) takes a no-frills approach to this story, calmly capturing the low-rent seediness of Ron’s pre-diagnosis life of abusing alcohol and having sex with rodeo groupies. The same ethos guides him as he takes in the ravages of the disease on Ron and the patients around him.
This might sound grim, but the movie actually plays much like a scruffy comedy as Ron skirts restrictions against selling his unapproved pharmaceuticals by founding a “buyers club,” giving drugs for free to people who buy memberships. He impersonates a priest, sweet-talks doctors in foreign countries for their drugs, and uses the names of Dallas Cowboys players as fake patients to cover up his operation. There’s also a neat gag early on when we see Ron with his hands clasped in front of lit candles, seemingly praying for help, only for the camera to pull back and reveal that he’s in a strip club, not a church.
First-time writer Craig Borten actually interviewed Woodroof shortly before his death in 1992. His script (co-written with Melissa Wallack) takes quite a few liberties with the facts — the real Woodroof was only a rodeo enthusiast, not an actual cowboy. The two major supporting characters are composites, too. Jennifer Garner portrays a hospital doctor who eventually becomes an ally of the buyers club. This is the least flashy of the principal roles, yet Garner does terrific work in it as a kind and nurturing woman with a core of steel.
Meanwhile, Jared Leto plays a heroin-addicted transgender woman who calls herself Rayon and helps Ron get his business off the ground. This character threatens to become a construct set there to illustrate the softening of Ron’s homophobia. (Indeed, Ron’s language is peppered with gay slurs until the gays become his customer base.) The reason Rayon doesn’t is because Leto plays her so flirtatiously in the early scenes and then fleshes out her wounded dignity as the disease takes away Rayon’s ability to be the only thing she ever wanted to be: pretty.
Then, of course, there’s the skeletal-looking McConaughey, whose goofy, mustachioed grin does much by itself to keep the tone of this movie light. The man is so cocksure that he insistently flirts with his doctor no matter how bad he looks, and yet we see him as fear and despair overtake him 29 days after his diagnosis, when he picks up his gun and considers ending his own suffering. His transformation into the activist firebrand we see at film’s end is as inspiring as it is unlikely. There have been many films about people who don’t find their purpose in life until they’re given a death sentence, but it’s Matthew McConaughey’s tremendous performance that gives Dallas Buyers Club its power.
Dallas Buyers Club
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, and Jared Leto. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Written by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack. Rated R.