Hollywood needed just three decades to release a movie about a straight adult American male dying of AIDS. It had to be directed by a French Canadian working from a screenplay by two writers who had a total of two features to their names. The wait was too long, but the payoff in “Dallas Buyers Club” is a big one.
It begins in 1985, with Dallas roughnecks reading a newspaper article about Rock Hudson getting AIDS. One of them, an electrician and sometime rodeo rider named Ron Woodroof, coughs ominously. He’s not far from the collapse that will put him in the hospital, where Dr. Sevard and Dr. Saks (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner) announce he’s HIV-positive. He disbelieves them, until he learns that unprotected sex with women – one of his favorite pastimes – can transmit the virus.
Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) bolts for Mexico, where renegade Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne) tells him massive doses of hospital-prescribed AZT will kill him. Vass prepares a drug/vitamin cocktail on which Woodruff gains weight and confidence. The problem? He can use untested drugs himself but can’t buy or sell them in the United States. So he creates the organization of the title, a “club” in which membership is $400 a month and Vass’ drugs are handed out for free. He stays a step ahead of the law by sneaking supplies across the border in various disguises.
“Club” stands out because of one thing it does and two things it doesn’t do.
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It tells its story swiftly, trusting us to be smart enough to piece things together: When Woodroof spots a hospital technician from the HIV ward in a bar, he sets up an illegal drug purchase without a word. Director Jean-Marc Vallée and writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack never repeat themselves or condescend to the audience.
More importantly, they don’t soften Woodroof’s character to make us like him. He lies, he brags, he sets out to get rich by finding drugs that keep people alive. His eyes light up as soon as he meets a woman with AIDS at his motel-room clinic, because he can now have sex without infecting anyone; a moment later, they’re rocking in the bathtub.
If we admire anything about him, it’s entrepreneurship; there’s something uniquely American about a guy outrunning his own death by turning suffering into profit. And as a judge asks, why shouldn’t a dying man be allowed to try any remedy for his disease?
Most significantly, the movie doesn’t plead for tolerance toward gays. (It shouldn’t have to, of course.) Woodroof’s business partner, a transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto), connects him to buyers but remains a pain in the butt: He’s drug-addicted and befuddled much of the time. When Woodroof forces a homophobic ex-pal to shake Rayon’s hand, he’s not standing up for gay pride; he won’t let anyone disrespect his co-worker, and he’s getting revenge for the way Woodroof’s friends dumped him after learning he had AIDS.
The movie’s not perfect. It sometimes overstates its “struggling little guy vs. big ponderous government” argument, and I never understood why immigration officials could so easily be fooled by Woodroof’s disguises and semi-credible line of patter. Garner struggles to put a nondescript character across.
But the two leads make us believe in their story. Leto, scarcely recognizable behind eyeliner and fluttering like a torn-winged butterfly, wins sympathy; the scene where he dresses as a man, sitting uncomfortably in suit and tie to ask his father for money, is one of the film’s saddest moments.
McConaughey, skeletal yet swaggering, gives a bravura performance. He has changed himself physically, shedding weight and growing a ’70s porn mustache, and has dropped his infectious charm. Gaunt and red-eyed, spitting boasts and insults, he makes us forget the hunk who coasted easily through so many previous roles.