Dallas Buyers Club takes us back to the early period of the AIDS epidemic, when ignorance and homophobia stood in the way of progress in fighting the deadly disease. The screenplay, written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, is loosely based on the story of Ron Woodruff, a Dallas man who contracted AIDS and then began smuggling unapproved but more effective pharmaceutical drugs into the country, and selling them to other AIDS patients. He circumvented the law through establishing a club that patients would pay dues to join and then be allotted a certain amount of drugs for their membership. Woodruff, who was straight and prejudiced against gay people, overcame his homophobia during this process.
Matthew McConaughey plays the leading role here, and as depicted in the film, Ron is a swaggering, foul-mouthed hard-drinking good old boy, hanging out at the local rodeo, living in a run-down trailer and partying on a regular basis with cocaine and prostitutes. In other words, he’s a total jerk, and the film’s strategy is to make him seem the least likely candidate for redemption you can imagine, especially considering his emphatic hatred for gays.
The writers have invented a compassionate and conflicted hospital doctor, played by Jennifer Garner, who struggles with her helplessness to do anything effective for AIDS patients, and a transgender AIDs patient played by Jared Leto, who eventually becomes Ron’s unlikely business partner in the buyer’s club. A good deal of the fun in this picture is watching the characters dodge the law and defy the FDA in various sneaky and underhanded ways, as they procure possibly life-saving drugs by whatever means necessary.
The real story here is the gradual letting go of hatred and prejudice on the part of Ron. The director of the film is Jean-Marc Vallee, and he’s smart enough to take it easy on the sentiment. Ron doesn’t become a beautiful lovable guy, but he gradually becomes less of a jerk, and that’s a much more realistic idea. The film has a story arc that’s more contrived than it might seem when you first watch it, and Vallee deserves some credit for making that work. But the real reason, the overwhelming reason for the movie working as well as it does, is Matthew McConaughey, who is, quite frankly, amazing in this role. Besides losing a ton of weight in order to portray an AIDS sufferer (as did Jared Leto as well), he dives into the part with an energy and conviction that brings everything else in the film along with him. He employs not just a few mannerisms, inflections of his voice, or body movements, but a complete presentation, a commitment that makes the character of Ron Woodruff absolutely indelible in your mind. Rarely has an actor so vividly portrayed an unlikable character that you end up rooting for anyway. I must say, McConaughey’s been hitting a sort of career peak lately, with deeper and more complex roles, and this is among his best work. Dallas Buyers Club is worth a look just for him.