Editor’s note: Our review of Dallas Buyers Club originally ran during this year’s TIFF, but we’re re-posting it now as the film expands into more theaters.
Matthew McConaughey’s quest to establish himself as one of the finest, most committed actors of his generation (post-Fool’s Gold, of course) continues apace in Jean-Marc Vallee’s fact-based Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a Texas good old boy with a taste for women, rodeo, good times, and intravenous drugs. When Ron’s hard-partying lifestyle results in a very unexpected HIV positive diagnosis, his life changes completely (and in some very surprising ways, as predictable as that may sound).
Set in the eighties, in a time when public misconceptions and misunderstandings about AIDS, HIV, and victims ran rampant, Dallas Buyers Club is tasked with turning Woodroof, an initially unlikable and unlikely hero, into a gutsy and brave protagonist. McConaughey doesn’t balk at playing up Ron’s least appealing features – a womanizer, a drug addict, and an opinionated asshole to the fullest extent, Ron’s diagnosis comes with a sense of inevitability. He’s been reckless with his life and body, and he’s paying for it in the most final way possible. Initially given thirty days to live, Ron’s hardened stubbornness and profound spite for the entire situation seemingly keeps him alive, especially after his illegally procured meds dry up.
Eventually wising up to his circumstances and the inequity of the “legal” drug system, Ron shirks the advice of his two doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner, perfectly adequate in a role that could have been elevated by a more compelling actress), heads off to Mexico to find some drugs, and comes back months later, intent on starting up a buyers club dedicated to providing banned drugs (and vitamins and minerals) to a group of paying members. It’s in Dallas Buyers Club’s second half, after the formation of the actual Dallas Buyers Club, that the film really starts to pick up, and Ron’s quest to not die from AIDS changes from a personal desire into a potentially very public crusade.
The film’s script, from Craig Morten and Melissa Wallack, is perhaps one of the least engaging elements of a film that seem generally designed to engage its audience. Woodroof’s life has little backstory or detail to it, and the implications of his eventually legal battles with the FDA are not given enough weight or context. Woodroof and his buyers club (and others like it, we soon hear about other clubs in New York City and Miami) surely had an indelible mark on AIDS treatment and the legal precedent for alternative treatments, but that’s all delivered without much care or clarity.
Fortunately, Valle’s otherwise well-crafted film features two outstanding performances to drive it. McConaughey’s portrayal of Woodroof is a full-bodied one, and he continues to dive headlong into unexpected and challenging work. Dallas Buyers Club may not be the best performance of his career, but that’s only because the actor is evolving at such an incredible pace that it’s easy to imagine his finest work is yet to come. The real standout of Dallas Buyers Club, however, is Jared Leto. As Ron’s femme-identifying (and dressing) business partner Rayon, Leto is nothing short of riveting. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of him, from his first appearance via curious and sly head tilt in a hospital bed until his final scenes, gut punches of pure emotion. The film marks the actor’s return to the big screen after four years away to pursue his musical endeavors, and he brings the same level of intensity and passion to the role that he previously exhibited in Requiem for a Dream.
Dallas Buyers Club lives and dies on the strength of its two lead performances, and it’s a solid pairing of both good luck and pure talent that McConaughey and Leto bring their absolute best to a film that requires nothing less.
The Upside: A career best performance from Jared Leto, another solid turn by Matthew McConaughey, and an overall sharply designed and directed production from Vallee.
The Downside: A slow starter, the film picks up considerably (both in terms of narrative pace and emotional return) during its final third, portrays a perhaps narrow view of history, and doesn’t fill in necessary details about a number of its main characters.
On the Side: McConaughey lost thirty-eight pounds for his role, while Leto lost thirty.