In the opening scene of Dallas Buyers Club, rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) helps another cowboy as he prepares for a bull ride. I couldn't help but think how the other cowboy looked like he could be related to Steve Zahn. Woodroof placed a losing bet on this cowboy, and in an attempt to avoid getting throttled by an angry mob, assaults a cop played by...Steve Zahn! Is there such a thing as Steve Zahn foresight? Do I have the gift?
Okay, I'm already getting way off topic here. Woodroof later has an accident at work, and awakens in a hospital. He's told by doctors that not only does he have AIDS, they estimate he has just 30 days to live. Set back in 1985, this was when AIDS was pretty much an automatic death sentence, and many considered it to be a "gay disease". Hell, I remember back then people were concerned you could get it from kissing or casual contact. Some of you may even remember Eddie Murphy doing a joke to this effect from Delirious. I'm not saying it was right, but it's interesting to see much differently AIDS was viewed 30 years ago.
Woodroof is able to score some AZT, which was in its early days of clinical trials, but the drug actually makes him worse and pushes him to the brink. Desperate for alternative treatments, he heads down to Mexico where he's given a series of non-FDA-approved medications and supplements. When his health improves and realizes he's been hanging on much longer than the doctor's guess, he sees an opportunity to make a lot of money. Needing a connection into the community, he partners with Rayon (Jared Leto) to sell memberships to those that want the supplements. The Dallas Buyers Club is born.
If you're someone that tends to think the FDA's is a good 20-30 years beyond current medical science, or controlled by big Pharma, then you're likely to appreciate what Woodroof did on principal. Granted, he did this initially to make money, but as time goes on he does it as much to help people and to get them off drugs that were making them sicker.
Based on a true story, one of the things that makes Dallas Buyers Club work so well is that its protagonist is a charming enough guy, but definitely has some severe character flaws (gambling, drugs, homophobia). Stubbornness can be a strength, and that's another thing I liked about Woodroof. He doesn't feel sorry for himself, and he never gives up despite many setbacks or the constant harassment from law enforcement. He's not going down without a fight.
His disease and association with gays isn't something that his friends look kindly on either, and is ostracized from them. Even Woodroof can't get past his own homophobia at first, but eventually starts to sympathize with the very community he used to demonize. He also slowly bonds and becomes friends with Rayon. This aspect is a pretty predictable buddy story where you have two people that don't get along, are forced to work together due to a common goal, and then become friends. Sure, it's a little cliched, but that doesn't make it any less satisfying to see play out.
While dealing with some dark subjects, another strength of Dallas Buyers Club is that it's peppered with humor and funny dialog. Much of this is provided through McConaughey's performance, who always has the right, smartass thing to say. The humorous moments actually make this extremely enjoyable to watch, when compared to some of the heavier films of this Oscar season. I have to credit screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack for keeping it light, but smart at the same. Director Jean-Marc Vallee could have tightened the pace a little bit, but was able to avoid having the film fall into melodrama.
Clearly the biggest strength is the out-of-the-park performance from Matthew McConaughey. The physical transformation of dropping 50 pounds alone is an achievement that can't be ignored. That's commitment to the role there. Despite his frail appearance, there's a fierce strength in his performance and he felt like a bull charging with a full head of steam. While this is definitely McConaughey's film, Jared Leto gives an equally great performance. He also goes through a physical transformation, and I know many people that didn't even realize it was Leto until afterwards. He's come a long way from My So-Called Life and Jordan Catalano. I've never thought about it much until now, but he's in that category of underrated, under appreciated actors that are usually overshadowed by another cast member or two. That doesn't happen here though, and I anticipate Oscar nominations for both Leto and McConaughey this year. I wouldn't be surprised to see both win either. Almost lost in the shuffle is Jennifer Garner who's also very strong as Dr. Eve Saks, but it's kind of hard stand out when you're in the shadow of two fantastic, Oscar-worthy performances.
I think I've mentioned this every time I seen a film with Matthew McConaughey recently, but has there been an actor that's had a more impressive career turnaround than he has in the past few years? I keep writing this as if it's a surprise he turned in a good performance, but that's the thing, it's not a surprise anymore. I see McConaughey's name on a film now and expect to be impressed and enjoy the film.
Dallas Buyers Club is a powerful and inspirational story anchored by the best performance of Matthew McConaughey's (and Jared Leto's) career. It's an example of how a darker tale can still entertain with its surprising humor and lively spirit. This is one film that's going to be counted among the years best and one you shouldn't miss.
4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars