Stellar Performances Are What Make Dallas Buyers Club Award-Worthy
Dallas Buyers Club takes two well-worn Hollywood tropes and combines them seamlessly into a new and vibrant story.
It is, at once, a major release film about a controversial social issue (think Serpico or Erin Brockovich), and simultaneously a somewhat familiar story of redemption for its anti-hero. Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is the film’s anti-hero, and the movie loosely follows the real life exploits of Woodroof as he illegally imports and distributes unapproved HIV treatments at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
The film opens with Woodroof at an amateur rodeo. We learn quickly that he is irresponsible, arrogant, and a cheat. Even though he embodies much of the prejudice and ugliness of that era, it is hard not to like him. He glories in the image of a swaggering, hard partying cowboy, which is rather incongruous given how frail and thin he already appears. Much attention has been paid to Matthew McConaughey’s weight loss for this role. It is shocking.
More shocking is the realistic and unflinching depiction throughout the film of the physical ravages of AIDS and the extremity of early treatments. The audience can be forgiven for feeling queasy after an early close-up of Woodroof with a bloody mouth. There is a definite immediacy, almost carnality, about this film. The director, Jean-Marc Vallee, should be commended.
Woodroof is diagnosed with HIV after an unrelated workplace accident. We are introduced to Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), a young physician and researcher at Dallas Mercy Hospital. Woodroof is desperate to join the clinical trials for the antiviral drug AZT, while Saks begins to have doubts about the cost and efficacy of the new drug. McConaughey portrays the stages of grief brilliantly, including one memorable scene of bargaining with God. Woodroof‘s health further declines. He continues to drink and abuse cocaine along with the AZT — illicitly provided by a Dallas Mercy janitor.
Woodroof is hospitalized again after his AZT supply is cut off. His hospital roommate is Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman and fellow HIV patient. The relationship that develops later between these two is the heart of the film. Jared Leto’s performance as Rayon is warm, subtle and very human, perhaps the best in the film
Woodroof travels to Mexico to obtain a new stock of AZT, where he is again hospitalized. He meets Dr Vass (Griffin Dunne), an American expat with a suspended medical license. Dr Vass is a homeopathic practitioner. He quickly convinces Woodroof that alternative treatments exist to AZT. The two just as quickly decide to smuggle non-FDA approved HIV treatments into the US. It is exciting and uplifting to see Woodroof take the bull by the horns, if that obvious metaphor may be forgiven. There is also a less noble profit motive for Woodroof. However, he is blocked from reaching other HIV patients by his virulent homophobia. He and Rayon become partners of necessity. Their joint effort pays off, alerting Dr Saks, whose patients begin dropping out of the AZT trails.
The loud and foul mouthed defiance of medical and governmental authority by Woodroof is much of this film’s fun. He is forced to greater and greater extremes to obtain alternative treatments for himself and the Dallas Buyers Club. A game of cat and mouse develops between Woodroof and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Pharmaceutical companies and the Food and Drug Administration are portrayed in a very unflattering light. Some of the actual history and science of HIV treatment development is sacrificed for the sake of the story. The medical and legal establishment is unfairly cast in the role of antagonist and boogeyman. Dr Saks’s superior, Dr Sevard (Denis O’Hare), is the film’s stand-in for that system. The early reaction to the HIV crisis was lethally slow. Dallas Buyers Club rightly points out that prejudice played a large role in the delay. It is less accurate in the depiction of the effectiveness of alternative treatments and the toxicity of AZT. What the film gets right is that self education and empowerment by HIV patients was fundamental to early survival. The David France documentary How to Survive a Plague (2012) is an excellent and informative look at early AIDS activism and treatment research, for those who wish to know more.
Dallas Buyers Club is one of the year’s best films. It is a highly fictionalized account of Ron Woodroof’s life and the history of the Dallas Buyers Club. It offers an entertaining and compelling, if simplified, view of the century’s greatest public health emergency. What makes this film great is the performance of the cast. Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, and Matthew McConaughey are simply amazing. This is not a film for children. Dallas Buyers Club deals with human sexuality and death in the most visceral of terms, another reason why it is so very good.