Dallas Buyers Club represents that breed of Oscar contender where the performances are far better than the movie. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto turn in career-defining work, but the film as a whole is pretty standard underdog fare and surprisingly cold and distant emotionally. You can’t help but feel like you should be caring more than you do about these characters and their plight.
McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a down-and-out electrician and rodeo bull rider in 1985 Dallas. He leads a freewheelin’ lifestyle (those rodeo groupies really put out!), but that rapidly grinds to halt when he discovers he has been diagnosed with HIV and is given thirty days to live. At the height of homophobia and fear regarding the virus, Ron immediately becomes an outcast among his circle of friends. In the hospital he meets a transvestite named Rayon (Leto), and the two band together in an effort to find alternative treatments for the disease. His efforts to thwart the greedy pharmaceutical industry take him all over the world, and he eventually sets up a “buyers club” with the medicines he acquires where, for a monthly fee, an HIV-positive person can access whatever treatments he or she wishes.
This is very much a run-of-the-mill “stick it to the man” narrative that goes through a lot of familiar paces. Basically, every doctor is a greedy moron and Woodroof is the hero, even though his knowledge about the disease is acquired during a crash course at a library. There’s plenty of grandstanding as Woodroof cusses out just about everybody, and that’s where the emotional disconnect occurs. For the first hour of this movie Woodroof is a completely arrogant, homophobic asshole about everything; not exactly an endearing fellow. When his big turnaround comes, it doesn’t feel near as genuine as it should.
Despite the narrative issues, both McConaughey and Leto turn in acting clinics. Looking emaciated and truly sickly, McConaughey goes to the wire with this character. Leto makes for a very convincing and damaged woman, who was already ostracized from life before the diagnosis. A scene in which he must confront his father about his contraction of HIV is one of the film’s most effective.
As a biography about a man going through a very new, very scary disease and his will to help others, Dallas Buyers Club is a good, not great, effort. These buyers clubs, as it turns out, were popular in many U.S. cities during the 80’s and early 90’s. There’s no doubt that Woodroof’s change of heart when he became the victim helped set an early example for acceptance. You just kind of wish he was more likable in the process.
Studio: Focus Features
Length: 117 Minutes
Rating: R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use.
Theatrical Release: November 22, 2013
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn