Am I a broken record or what, referring yet again to Matthew McConaughey as a tremendously gifted actor? Well, so be it. Traditionally, actors who change their appearances are bound to get Oscar recognition, and the fact that the preternaturally fit McConaughey lost nearly 50 pounds to play the role of a person with AIDS will no doubt help him in that race for gold. Do not be mistaken, however: Regardless of physical changes, McConaughey delivers a performance that is full of fury and underscored with grace points that’s worthy of any recognition that comes his way.
Our star plays the real-life character Ron Woodruff, an electrician and rodeo hanger-on in the ’80s who finds himself diagnosed with full-blown AIDS and given a 30-day prognosis. Ron refuses to accept this diagnosis and hates that he has gotten what, at that time, was considered a gay disease. What he hates more is that the drug he apparently needs, AZT, is available only on a trial basis, and he doesn’t make the cut. Through “luck,” he manages to access the drug for several weeks, illegally, but the effects leave him almost worse off than he was at the onset of his diagnosis. Following a lot of library research, Ron takes matters into his own hands and goes to Mexico, where he works with a disgraced M.D. (Griffin Dunne) to begin shipping a mix of vitamins, protein and other pharmaceuticals to the states, to help people, like Ron, suffering from HIV/AIDS.
In order to thwart government intervention, Ron establishes a “buyers club,” meaning that people pay a monthly fee in order to receive free meds that they otherwise couldn’t get. This being America, the IRS gets involved early on, seeking to get its cut, and the DEA tries to clamp down even though the substances Woodruff is providing haven’t yet been classified as drugs by the FDA. Much of the punch of Dallas Buyers Club comes from Woodruff’s efforts to do an end run around government bureaucracy. Indeed, in these moments, McConaughey’s sly riffs—posing as a physician or a priest—are amusing, but never take us away from the fact that what he’s doing is so very relevant.
Dallas Buyers Club really brings the viewer back to the time when HIV/AIDS was new and awesomely scary. The fact that Ron is aggressively hetero and very anti-gay embellishes the narrative. Eventually, Ron, ever the pragmatist, takes on as an associate Rayon (Jared Leto), who is transgender; while initially repulsed by her, Ron eventually learns to respect Rayon as a person. I admit that I loved Leto as the matinee idol boyfriend on My So-Called Life—so let me just say that I am more enthralled by his endearing, heartbreaking performance in this movie.
This is a supreme act of moviemaking—compelling narrative mixed with equally compelling performances that don’t seem like performances. Ron Woodruff is an Everyman, just wanting to live, and to live a good life, and in that, he resonates with each of us. As corny as it sounds, if you see one film this season, see Dallas Buyers Club.