We only get one life, says Ron Woodrood. And although he seems to have screwed his up rather thoroughly before a life sentence of a diagnosis brings everything crashing around him, he’s willing to use what’s left of it to help others enjoy the last shards of their own. It’s a story in evened egos and half-again chances, and it’s one of this year’s more impressively acted films, Dallas Buyers Club.
When drug-dealing, womanizing hustler Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) learns that he has HIV/AIDS, he immediately goes home to two hookers, his best friend and a mix of cocaine and beer. This couldn’t possibly be happening to him — he’s as heterosexual as they come and willing to prove it to you with as many trips to the strip club and one-night-stands as he wants. As he gets sicker during his final 30 days the doctor allotted, he decides to use his ingenuity to research medications other than trial-only AZT. His findings show that other countries have doctors with far better treatments, but the FDA’s loyalty to the pharmaceutical companies makes such medicines almost illegal in the US. With the help of new friend Rayon (Jared Leto) and renegade doctor Eve (Jennifer Garner), Ron starts distributing to other AIDS patients tired of AZT’s deadly risks and deadlier side effects.
For Ron, illness becomes a reason to live, not a death sentence. At first he doesn’t budge from his lifestyle, but once he realizes that he has the ability to do something to combat the disease — something that the doctors won’t consider — he not only aims to save himself but also others. Unlike the comedies involving people who learn of their impending doom and decide to squeeze in as much self-gratification and altruistic action as possible (think 2006’s The Last Holiday or 2007’s The Bucket List), Dallas Buyers Club shows a character who leaves the hospital and, after denial and a microfilm-aided epiphany tastefully performed by McConaughey, refuses to die before his allotted 30 days are up because “Ain’t nothing in this world can kill Ron Woodroof in 30 days.” Even more refreshing is that his will to survive transfers into helping others with the same affliction. At the beginning, it seems like Ron is a lone wolf who lives (and intends to die) for himself. By the end, he takes joy in making sure others are as well-cared-for as he is, and wants to make sure those coming after him can receive the same medical care he’s researched and provided. It’s a legacy expected of a doctor, not a self-taught electrician.
In fact, Dallas Buyers Club has a lot to do with unexpected actions taken by unexpected people. Ron’s lifestyle suggests he’ll die alone on the floor of his trailer. Eve is the only female physician in the hospital board room for most of the meetings, which might suggest a woman just trying to make it in a predominately male environment, but she is the first to vocally take issue with the FDA’s treatment of AIDS medications that thwart AZT’s profits. Rayon should want nothing to do with the borderline-homophobic Ron when she first meets him in the hospital, and yet she not only plays cards with him but also sooths a leg cramp.
The casting choices made in the film echo the idea of predictable characters doing unpredictable things. Who would have ever thought of putting rom-com king McConaughey in a film with this much gravity to its story? They say this is another masterpiece of the “McCon-aissance,” following his starring role in Mud and off-beat appearances in Bernie and The Wolf of Wall Street. And yet, although few imagined the day when it would be possible to say an Oscar-nominated film’s lead could only be filled by McConaughey, his career may be defined by his portrayal of Woodroof. Physical alterations aside, the How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days actor is shockingly good, nailing everything from the emotional breakdowns Ron has to the tiny ticks (like making sure he has his cowboy hat before he leaves the hospital, back of his gown blowing wide open) that make him a human rather than the McConaughey persona — alright, alright, alright — dressed in a different costume.
Meanwhile, Leto has his own physical and emotional transformation as Rayon – but is it really a 180-degree turn for the 30 Seconds To Mars frontman? “All my life I was never there, just a ghost running scared.” he wrote in the band’s newest hit, “City of Angels,” which speaks to the experience of wannabe actors coming to LA (with a star-studded video that features testimony from Shaun White, Lindsey Lohan, Corey Feldman, Kanye West, Olivia Wilde and others) That’s Rayon’s life in a verse. Despite his glib acceptance speech at the Golden Globes that attracted a lot of heat from the LGBT community and supporters, Leto grasps Rayon as a person, rather than as a curiosity. Dustin Hoffman’s incomparable performance in Tootsie asked male audiences to acknowledge female professionals as equally hard workers facing unequal challenges. Leto in Dallas Buyers Club asks straight audiences to acknowledge transgender people as equal human beings facing a society that didn’t see them as such in the 1980s or even in the 2010s.
Dallas Buyers Club is a film that thrives on its intriguing story and the enthralling performances of its two main actors. Whether it’s as ambitious and influential a directorial attempt is debatable — although its content is Oscar bait, its final product lacks compared to other contenders — but the film still leaves audiences with more than a “I’m glad I saw that because McConaughey was awesome” feeling. Political messages about social acceptance, government corruption and the corporation of the healthcare system invoke anger. But there’s also a sadness in the story (like any serious film about AIDS) and a call to do something to make ourselves, as Ron tells Eve over a candlelit dinner, “like a human again.”
The Verdict: McConaughey and Leto make Dallas Buyers Club a film well worth the watch (don’t expect much if anything from Garner, whose blandness almost distracts from the brilliant performances of her co-stars). It’s an emotional film that also acts as a call for its audience to step up and take control in their lives — the one life they get.