My quest to see the Oscar nominees continues, as I decided to check out Dallas Buyers Club last week. Matthew McConaughey (The Wolf of Wall Street) stars in the semi-biographical account of AIDS activist Ron Woodroof, a patient who sought alternative means of procuring medication after being frustrated domestically by U.S. pharm laws and their attendant bureaucracy. McConaughey is enjoying a career renaissance, having recently shed his image as a rom-com mainstay in favor of more complex, challenging roles. In Dallas Buyers Club, his career continues its surprising divergence as he gives a tour de force performance.
Woodroof is a hard-living rodeo rider, depicted as the macho, archetypical cowboy. He is diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and given 30 days to live, facing the unbelievable realization that his life is over. His friends ostracize him, believing that he is homosexual. Now a pariah, Woodroof’s options are limited. When his doctors suggest that he participate in an AZT trial, he signs up in the hopes that he won’t receive the placebo. He feels helpless and at the mercy of his doctors, as he’s unable to guarantee that he’ll receive AZT in the trial and unable to purchase it out of pocket due to FDA regulations. Jennifer Garner (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) co-stars as Eve, a doctor who finds genuine friendship in the ailing Woodroof.
Desperate for life prolonging drugs, but unable to secure them from American doctors, Woodroof begins to obtain AZT illegally from a source inside the hospital. This routine transaction leads to a connection in Mexico, and soon Woodroof is smuggling drugs into the U.S. and selling them out of the trunk of his car to other patients, many of who were in the AZT trial. Only these drugs are different. While in Mexico, Woodroof meets the rogue Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne, Broken City), who educates him about the deleterious effects of AZT and administers a cocktail of various supplements and vitamins that will be more effective. The components aren’t FDA approved for usage in the U.S., but as a man on borrowed time, what does Woodroof have to lose? Soon he is smuggling the product back to Texas and selling it to patients as an AZT alternative. As clientele and profits grow, he decides to form a club where the black market drugs are given freely with the cost of membership. If you aren’t a member of the Dallas Buyers Club, he can’t accommodate you.
During a previous hospital stay, Woodroof reluctantly befriended a fellow patient and trial participant named Rayon, a sensitive transvestite beautifully portrayed by Jared Leto (Chapter 27). Initially Woodroof’s homophobia prevents any real connection, but eventually they bond through the futility of their shared condition and warmth of companionship. The film takes us on an emotional journey as Woodroof grapples with his own fateful mortality, while becoming a cult crusader in the field of healthcare reform. Why should it be illegal for him to improve what little life a dying person has left?
The filmmakers explore our notions of morality and justice, and the indomitable nature of the human spirit and will to survive. McConaughey’s dedication and preparation for the role cannot be denied. The physical transformation he undertook resulted in the gaunt, haggard appearance of a dying man. I can’t imagine the wealth and depth of emotion it takes to convey the despair and frustration of impending death, and then to reveal a flicker of hope and passion as you fight for a larger cause. Bravo.
Everything I just said about Matthew McConaughey can be applied in equal measure to Jared Leto, who gave a performance that shows he can hold his own with anyone. It was beautiful and courageous, and I have a hard time deciding if he or Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) is more deserving of an Academy Award in their supporting category. Dallas Buyers Club was poignant, but inspiring. It will challenge your perceptions about disease and how you treat others; it will connect you with your own humanity. Although certain aspects of the film were draining to witness, I thought it was meaningful and deserving of its critical acclaim. Grade: B+