I recently had the opportunity to check out an early screening of Dallas Buyers Club, which is out today across North America. I had heard of the film right before this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it received its world premiere. I unfortunately did not get a chance to take in a screening of it at the festival, but I was very excited to hear all of the positive feedback and reviews it received and looked forward to its wide release. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto and directed by Canadian Jean-Marc Valée, Dallas Buyers Club is a film you need to see, if not for its intriguing story then definitely for its outstanding performances.
Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club centers around Ron Woodroof, a promiscuous, homophobic Dallas cowboy who is diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s. He is initially prescribed a treatment of AZT, a drug used to treat cancer patients but begins to be promoted as a treatment of HIV/AIDS, despite being barely tried on patients with the illness. After a near-death experience due to AZT, Ron seeks alternative medicinal treatments from across the world to extend his life. When his [illegal] self-medication works, he turns his processes into a full-out business, selling memberships in exchange for treatment, to help others afflicted by HIV/AIDS, fighting the FDA and pharmaceutical companies along the way.
Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal of Ron Woodroof is quite startling, both physically and characteristically. McConaughey lost 47lbs for the role, leaving him with a sunken face and a fragile frame, a stark contrast to the chiseled features and muscular body we are so used to seeing in his romantic comedies. Pair this with the rude, insulting, non-stop cussing tendencies of Woodroof, and it takes a really long time to get used to and even try to like McConaughey in this role. He’s a jerk for more than half the film.
But as the story progresses and as he starts to impart change on a community, you begin to find this version of McConaughey endearing because he is daring and unapologetic for his methodology. Helping him develop his character arch is Rayon, a transgendered drug addict who also has AIDS, played by 30 Seconds to Mars’ frontman Jared Leto. When Rayon and Ron first meet, Ron is not exactly a gentleman. He shudders at being touched by a transgendered individual and spits out all sorts of derogatory language. They eventually form a partnership over the Dallas Buyers Club. Over the course of the film they develop this kinship which is initially rooted in the business, but grows to be this willingness to understand and accept one another as is, which really is the ticket to any change that we see their characters go through.
It’s Leto’s first film role in six years, but he really knocks it out of the park and almost makes you wish he’d give up music for an acting career. He too lost around 40lbs for the role, and according to this interview, completely embodied the character throughout filming. His persistence translates well on screen, making Rayon much more than a “sidekick” character, but actually the individual that humanizes Ron. I will be shocked if Leto does not make it to the final round of Supporting Actor nominations at the Academy Awards.
While I do agree with the critics in saying that McConnaughey does a tremendous job in his role as Woodroof, I think he has a lot of competition coming up in this year’s Oscar race and would not be surprised if he is not nominated. That being said, I think this is certainly a turning point in his career and will give him a whole lot more credibility than being just a pretty boy (though, to be fair, I have only seen him in roles post-Wedding Planner, so it is entirely possible that he had an acting golden era much earlier on).
I love that movies like these expose me to movements that I was never aware of to begin with. Apparently buyers clubs became popular in the 1980s around the United States and it’s definitely a topic I am interested to learn more about. Furthermore, these types of tales really remind you about the power of an individual and the command they have for autonomy, especially within a highly criticized system that many argue do not benefit the people who operate within it. This is highlighted at one point in the film where Woodroof asks why the government gets to decide how he can treat his own body. I’m sure many viewers will leave the theatre pondering this idea.
Dallas Buyers Club also brings up the issue of the role of the corporation in government, as pharmaceutical companies are known to have a certain influence given their lucrative profit margins and role in the economy. Jennifer Garner sort of works as our moral compass in this respect of the plot, and although she does a fine job at it, her performance pales in comparison to her male costars. That being said, she’s always possessed this sort of gentleness to her expressions while executing a fierceness in her movements and delivery, which is the case once more in this film, particularly in one boardroom scene which had the audience cheering and giggling away.
I suppose my only issue with this film is that the story felt a little inconclusive, but maybe that is because I am used to film adaptations of these types of stories ending in a neat package. As we all know, that rarely happens in life, but we can still enjoy the ride.