In 1985, hustler Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is diagnosed with AIDS. At this point in time, there is little information about the cause and treatment of AIDS. Woodruff becomes an outcast within his masculinity-heavy circle that refers to AIDS as “the fag disease”. Doctors can’t help him either, there is only one drug -called AZT- that could possibly help in the treatment, but it is still in the testing stages. What does a dying man do then? He goes to Mexico, where other drugs are legal and brings them over. Soon he partners up with transexual Rayon (Jared Leto) and they start running a “buyers club”; selling membership and distributing drugs to other patients who have also been failed by the system.
That is pretty much the basic plot-line for Dallas Buyers Club. It may sound like the premise for your typically inspiring, overly sentimental story about humanity and will triumphing in desperate times -the trailer has certailny made it seem so- but the movie has other goals in its sight. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria) approaches the material with a very objective hand. Unlike most movies dealing with a real life subject, there are few moments -especially in the first half- that feel familiar or particularly movie-ish. What we get is a matter-of-fact view at a particular character and what he is going through. The movie doesn’t work to make us feel things, Vallée knows the material he is working with is powerful and that presenting it in the most realistic way possible is the most effective route he could take.
Part of why this approach works so well, of course, is McConaughey’s lead performance. In the past two years or so, Matthew McConaughey has gone from being one of the blandest actors, eternally trapped in terrible romantic comedies, into one of the most interesting and immersive performers in Hollywood. His great work in movies like Magic Mike and Killer Joe seem to culminate in his characterization of Woodruff. A lot has been said about McConaughey losing an extraordinary amount of weight to portray Woodruff, however his performance is not the kind of showy method work you’d expect from such weight-loss reports. His work is much closer to a star-turn, using all of the charisma we associate with his suave-southern screen persona and naturally making it fit with this character. Woodruff’s arch is pretty much that of the bigot that ends up warming up to homosexuals and the fight against AIDS. As we’ve established, though, the movie doesn’t play this transformation as anything all that heroic or too sentimental, which means it really lets McConaughey work with an imperfect human character.
The other transformative performance at the center of the movie belongs to Jared Leto as Rayon, a sweet pre-op transgender AIDS patient. Based on his previous performances, interviews and his horrible band, I have found Leto to be one of the most pretentious and insufferable celebrities of the past years. He too went into a big physical transformation for this movie, losing weight and affecting his voice and movements. The character of Rayon is not perfectly calibrated, turning a little too much into the gay martyr we’ve seen too many times before, but damn if Leto isn’t great in the movie. This doesn’t change my personal opinion of Mr. Leto, but he has demonstrated he can, in fact, be a very talented actor. Even if Rayon ends up in a tired position as a character, Leto manages to squeeze raw and emotional power out of his later scenes.
Even though it’s a very good movie, there are a few things that ultimately keep Dallas Buyers Club from being outright great. One of them is the fate of Rayon, which I’ve already mentioned, but the bigger thing is that the movie as a whole loses a lot of steam towards the second half. Some of this is thanks to the gaining protagonism of Dr. Eve Saks, played by a wasted Jennifer Garner, for the character is kind of big nothing. She plays the part of the initially dismissive doctor who ends up warming up to Woodruff’s plan. She stands somewhere between romantic interest and our link to the medical world without ever feeling like a complete character. This is a major missed opportunity, since she could very well have been used to present us with more information about the medical side of this problem.
Much of the movie, especially in the last moments, focuses on Woodruff’s fight against the Food and Drug Administration Office and the medical mistreatment of patients and lack of effective drug distribution. This is also some of the most interesting aspects about the AIDS plight that we get from the movie, considering it is a theme that has not been explored too many times int he past. Of course, Woodruff’s character arch has its focus and couldn’t diverge too much into this medical debates, but Dr. Saks’s character could have had some kind of agency in indulging the audience in this fascinating information we hadn’t heard before instead of just sitting there being the token female character. I know I’m supposed to review the movie I saw and not the one I would have liked to have seen, but Dallas Buyers Club kept teasing me in that way. Especially, since the movie, as it stands, is really good. But it could have been great.
Grade: 7 out of 10