While Dallas Buyers Club is merely “inspired by true events,” one could argue that the story itself, though incredibly interesting, is the vehicle for very real social commentary on the state of drug approval in the US and the monopoly the FDA holds as a gatekeeper for big pharmaceutical companies to keep a stranglehold on the market. That concept in and of itself would be ripe for several hours of exploration, but Dallas Buyers Club is much more than that. It’s also a fascinating character transformation on equal physical and emotional levels, capsulated in a time where the unknown was dangerous and change was absolutely essential to survival. It’s a brave film, with performances that will be praised throughout Oscar season.
The events revolve around Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), a part-time rodeo rider who works as an electrician to pay his rent in a trailer park in 1985 Dallas. Ron is what he perceives to be a man’s man. He hangs out at rodeos, bars, and strip clubs, drinking and smoking heavily whilst having casual, unprotected sex with every woman he can seduce or pay for. Ron and his friends live fast and hard from binge to binge, feeling like invincible cowboys. That is, until Ron winds up in the hospital after being electrocuted on the job.
When Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) tells Ron that his routine blood work came back HIV positive and he has 30 days to live, Ron snarls at her in homophobic rage and disbelief. He storms out of the hospital to go into a drug-fueled stupor that leads to rapid fatigue and fainting spells, ultimately bringing him to the epiphanic realization that the doctor was right: he is HIV positive and will die soon. Ron springs into action, learning as much as he can about where he got the disease and how he could treat it. He learns of AZT, a controversial, expensive new drug that is in clinical trials and is what the FDA deems as the most effective way to-date of stemming the onset of AIDS.
When Woodruff doesn’t qualify for the trials, he seeks the drug by any means necessary, which eventually takes him to Mexico to meet with an American physician who had his license revoked for treating AIDS patients in unorthodox ways. Instead of AZT, the doctor provides him with a cocktail of vitamins and protein serum that makes Ron feel better than he has ever felt since being diagnosed. Ron smuggles a supply across the border, initially as a business plan to make money to pay for his own expensive treatment. When Ron realizes that he must overcome his rampant homophobia to make money, he reluctantly partners with Rayon (Jared Leto), an HIV positive transvestite who Ron met in treatment that has a network of potential buyers for their new venture. After being continually shut down by the FDA for unapproved drug sales (read: competition for big pharma), Ron finds a loop hole in the law to open up a Dallas Buyers Club; a membership-based distributor where members pay to enroll and get the treatment for free. Together, Ron and Rayon take on big business, help to establish a better treatment for AIDS, and learn about each other and themselves in the process.
With as much as Dallas Buyers Club is trying to say here (effective treatment vs. what’s approved, homophobia in the 80’s, life with AIDS), the Oscar chatter this early should be a testament to just how good the performances are. Matthew McConaughey is absolutely stellar as Ron Woodruff. He balances the character’s raw and misplaced emotions as mistaken, human responses to the world he grew up in, which prevents the audience from completely distancing themselves from Ron’s mean-spirited homophobia and substance abuse to go on a journey with the character. This pays off handsomely as our protagonist evolves throughout the film, bringing closure and catharsis to what easily could have been the dark story of one unlikeable man’s quest to make money off of the misfortune of others. McConaughey’s performance will be talked about for his weight loss and physical appearance for the role, but make no mistake: his acting will be what earns his nomination, even over his performance in Mud earlier this year.
Flat out, Jared Leto deserves an Academy Award for his turn as Rayon. Leto goes toe-to-toe with McConaughey in every scene. If you can believe it, he’s actually skinnier than McConaughey’s character, infinitely interesting to watch, and is simply acting his ass off in Dallas Buyers Club. I’ve enjoyed previous forays into acting for Leto, but he turns in an Oscar-caliber performance in this film. Again, this character could have been a one-note side show to inject some comic relief and tragedy into Ron’s story, but Leto’s nuanced performance paints Rayon as a clever, sweet human being who just wants to love and be loved. Bravo, Jared Leto.
Sure, you could see Dallas Buyers Club to witness the much-talked-about physical transformations of its actors, but there is so much more to be had here. It’s the first surefire Oscar winner I’ve seen in the latter half of the year. See it!
Dallas Buyers Club opens today in Philly area theaters.