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Dallas Buyers Club

| November 13, 2013 | 0 Comments

“The Dallas Buyers Club” opens with a scene that doesn’t mean much at first.  We are at a rodeo; bull and rider are let out of the pen.  The bull flails around in the ring while the rider holds on for dear life.  Elsewhere, overlooking the proceedings, are a man and a woman in shadow engaged in what can only be referred to as mercenary sex.  Later when that man is declared HIV positive it becomes clear that it is he, not the bull rider, who is really playing a dangerous game.

The man is Ron Woodroof, a real-life rodeo stud and electrician who was diagnosed in 1985 with HIV and, after a period of denial, engaged his skills as a hustler to extend his life seven years after being diagnosed with only 30 days to live.  How Ron got the disease is pretty easy to figure out.  He lives a life of excess that would have made Henry VIII blush.  He’s not a nice guy.  He’s a party animal with a cocaine habit, who guzzles booze and chases skirts with such ferocity that it almost seems exaggerated.  Like his buddies at the rodeo, Ron is a hard-headed homophobic, a misogynistic louse whose response to the news that he is HIV positive with “I ain’t no faggot.”  He tells his doctor to shove it before storming out of the hospital.  Looking at his gaunt, skinny frame and pallid skin we are left to wonder why Ron didn’t figure out something was wrong sooner.

The news that he is suffering from a “gay disease” hits him hard.  Newspapers have just announced the death of Rock Hudson and it pushes his fellow homophobes away.  Yet, he’s not satisfied to lay down and die.  He begins doing research and tries to get his hands on AZT, the only FDA treatment available at the time.  Wading through a network of health officials whose only response is “No . . . I’m really sorry,” he determines to get some kind of help.  From here it is difficult to discuss important plot points without spoilers.  So, be warned.

Ron is spurred into action that not only extends his life but also helps a lot of other people in the process.  He discovers an American doctor in Mexico (a barely recognizable Griffin Dunne) who is willing to sell him the medication that he can then smuggle back across the border.  In an effort to skirt legal issues, he develops The Dallas Buyers Club, a club in which fellow AIDS patients pay him a $400 annual club fee and get their drugs for free.   He even makes friends with a pre-op transsexual named Rayon who has the disease himself and becomes Ron’s connection into gay clients.  Ron’s tepid friendship with Rayon doesn’t crack his homophobia, but it pushes him into a mode of respect that never feels phony.  There is a mutual respect that develops that is touching even while it can’t necessarily be called a friendship.

Ron’s story is told through a brilliant performance by Matthew McConaughey, whose days as a rom-com himbo seem to be safely behind him after two years of wonderful work in “Killer Joe”, “Magic Mike”, and “Mud”.  This is the single best performance of his career, a brave virtuoso piece of acting that reminds us why he became a movie star in the first place.  McConaughey lost 38 pounds to play this role and his appearance is striking.  We’re use to the handsome, tanned actor with the Adonis-physique, but here he has shed all that.  Ron is rail-thin with sunken facial features and bad skin.  We’re reminded of many of the young men who succumb to the disease early on – healthy men with youthful eyes staring out of a frame that was slowly withering away.  Yet, McConaughey’s physical transformation is only part of what makes his performance work.  He isn’t afraid to play Ron as a cantankerous jerk.  Our sympathy comes from his transformation from self-involved louse, to a man determined to help other AIDS patients who are being written off as “the living dead.”

The other great performance in the film comes from Jared Leto as Rayon, a sarcastic pre-op transsexual who becomes Ron’s liaison to find gay patients for the club.  Rayon is gay but he’s not over-the-top.  There’s a sensitive heart beating beneath is transgender apparel and his approach to Ron is very touching.  The two man have a mutual need but it isn’t in a formula way.  It is a form of respect that doesn’t quite tip over into friendship.  Leto has always been an understated actor and here he turns in his finest performance.  He deserves and Oscar nomination next spring.

You only wish that the rest of the movie were so original.  The movie gets into the by-the-number elements of the plot and dispenses them often with underdeveloped characters and predictable drama.  Jennifer Garner has a criminally underwritten role as a doctor who is by Ron’s side when he first gets the bad news but later comes to have sympathy with what he is trying to do.  The rest of the doctors come off as cold and unfeeling, usually approaching Ron with a lot of negatives.  So, you’re left with two great performances in a movie whose script needed work.  That’s okay because it’s a flawed story led by an unflawed performance by Matthew McConaughey, one that signals that this wonderful actor is at the top of his form.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2013) View IMDB Filed in: Drama