Review: Dallas Buyers Club
Read Chris Bumbray's TIFF review here!
PLOT: Based on the true story of Ron Woodroof who, after being diagnosed with HIV and not being able to secure useful medication, began to smuggle in drugs from other countries in order to sell them to those with the same disease. In the process, he turned his "only 30 days to live" diagnosis into several years of crusading against the greedy pharmaceutical company attempting to distribute an ineffective drug.
REVIEW: A handful of very solid performances buoy DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, an interesting take on a fascinating subplot in the war against AIDS in the 80s. Led by Matthew McConaughey, who dropped something in the neighborhood of 40 pounds to portray a Texan infected with HIV, the main cast of Jean-Marc Vallee's dramedy offers powerful, sympathetic turns in a movie that takes a slightly run-of-the-mill approach in lieu of something that can be considered truly moving. If anything, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB offers just enough intrigue into its subject matter to spark your interest in researching the facts themselves, in order to receive better insight into the strange-but-true details of the life of Ron Woodroof.
When we meet him, Woodroof is your stereotypical good old boy living in the Texan sun; he's a rodeo rider, a drinker, a carouser and general troublemaker. He has sex freely with questionable women and spits homophobic slurs almost every chance he gets. On a chance visit to the hospital after an accident, Ron's life changes when he learns he has the HIV virus. He's also told he has about 30 days to live. Of course, this being the 80s - and Ron being anything but liberal-minded - he's quick to dismiss this as a mistake, as everybody knows only homosexuals get infected with HIV. However, his health and weight deteriorating rapidly, Ron must soon accept the fact that he is indeed sick, and begins to ingest the pharmaceutical AZT, essentially the only drug on the market for HIV patients, albeit one that was not FDA approved at the time.
After bribing an orderly to sneak him the drug (since the drug is in the test phase, he might be among those receiving a placebo), Ron is soon confronted with the knowledge that AZT, if anything, makes its subjects worse off than they already are. Desperate for a solution and spurred on by his refusal to wither away, Ron eventually travels to Mexico and meets an uncertified doctor (Griffin Dunne) who is distributing drugs that help lessen the effects of HIV. Ron immediately comes up with a scheme that involves smuggling the drugs back to Texas and selling them to similarly infected people, making a profit and keeping some of the stash for himself in the process. It won't be easy for Ron to target a key market - the gay community - as the sickness has done nothing to eliminate his prejudice, so he enlists a local crossdresser named Rayon (Jared Leto) to assist in his criminal activity. Naturally, the two are strictly business partners at first, with Ron barely able to hide his disgust at the flamboyant Rayon, but a grudging friendship develops between them.
Vallee keeps the film going at a breezy pace, and despite the grimness of Ron's circumstances, the film actually takes on the air of an upbeat caper-comedy. This isn't out of place because Ron, for all his ignorance, is a very spirited character, and McConaughey's natural charisma - and his recent devotion to tackling roles that are strong and complex - totally takes control of the man who increasingly lets his guard down in the name of helping others. His face seemingly becoming gaunter by the scene, McConaughey fully conveys Ron's struggle and determination even as the man himself graduates from bigot to hero of the people. For when it's obvious that he could get significant jail-time for selling illegal drugs, Ron starts the Dallas Buyers Club and gives out the meds for free; the customers only have to pay for membership into this club, which is based in a motel room. It's a wily scheme, but Ron gradually adopts the "us vs. them" attitude that aligns him with the compromised group against the FDA and pharmaceutical company who stand to make millions off the ineffective AZT drug.
While McConaughey transforms his charming country boy persona into something more conflicted and challenging with Ron, Leto is all but completely unrecognizable as Rayon, and the role is certain to garner the actor-turned-musician much awards attention this season. Sweet and gentle but with enough self-respect to shove back against Ron's constant stream of insults, Rayon is a character fully lived-in by Leto, who has previously shown a willingness to morph himself for a part (see his turn as Mark David Chapman in CHAPTER 27), but has never accomplished so much as he does here. The other delicate spirit in Ron's life is Eve (Jennifer Garner), the doctor who first informs Ron of his illness and, despite his initial hostility, sticks with him as something of a co-conspirator when his project comes to light. Garner has played many compassionate roles before, but here she is such a welcome and lovely presence it's easy to look beyond a character that isn't quite as three dimensional as Ron or Rayon.
Not at all three-dimensional is Eve's colleague Dr. Sevard (Denis O'Hare), who pushes AZT carelessly; the character is portrayed as such a cut-and-dried schmuck that he comes off as little more than caricature. I'm not sure if such a man existed, but the movie's depiction of him is pure "bureaucrat we're supposed to hate", mostly there to give Ron and Eve someone to scowl at when the going gets tough. The FDA too is shown as little more than a useless agency in the pocket of the drug companies; there's very little grey area explored when it comes to the movie's antagonists, and while the charges leveled against them may be understandable or even valid, nothing in life is ever so clear cut.
But it's a savvy crowd-pleaser, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is, and while it sometimes falls short of true profundity in favor of giving us a palatable David Vs. Goliath scenario - not to mention tons of obvious Academy Award Clip moments - it shines a necessary spotlight on a dark passage in the U.S.'s recent history with the help of three really terrific leads.