Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
IE Rating: *** 1/2
Matthew McConaughey lost 18 kg for his role of a man dying of AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club. That’s not just a number. The ashen complexion, the red, sunken eyes, the gaunt face and the skeletal body — laid bare to unsparing light — tell the story of a disease that ravaged not just the body but, in the 1980s, left a scared, uncomprehending world looking at something they barely understood.
By the time HIV strikes down Ron Woodroof (McCoanaughey), there is little he hasn’t subjected his body to, from drugs and cigarettes to drinking, and yet the revelation upends the life he has known as a homophobic, expletive-spewing man more prone to backslapping with buddies at strip joints. As the visibly ailing Ron disintegrates, those friends quickly disappear, and he is left alone to figure out how to extend his life beyond the 30 days the doctors give him.
Ron bribes a hospital employee to get himself access to a trial drug, AZT, with known side-effects, and once that option runs out, travels to Mexico. There he meets a de-licenced doctor, who has developed a cocktail of drugs to manage HIV better, and which has AIDS patients streaming to him. Ron is there for three months, before deciding that money can be made of this drug combination back home. The motivation is as much profit as the desire to show the doctors who gave him no chance wrong.
Dallas Buyers Club is about the operation Ron sets up, giving it that name, where he supplies this mix of vitamins, minerals and FDA-unapproved drugs to people lining up around the corner. Doctors oppose him, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is at his heels, and pharmaceutical companies want to bring him down, but Ron presses on, even building up own “research”, as he calls it. He smuggles in drugs in disguises, is not afraid to ask questions when caught, barges in on AIDS support groups seeking clients, and is willing to go to court for his right to access drugs which can help ward off death.
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McConaughey lends Ron both the swagger an outlaw hero such as him needs and, because we can’t put the image of the actor as the golden-boy behind us, the sense of the uphill battle he is waging. It is also surprisingly true to the real story of Ron Woodroof, fictional as it may seem at times in the extent to which he goes.
Craig Borten, who interviewed Woodroof days before he eventually died in 1992 (seven years after being diagnosed), wrote the screenplay with Melisa Wallack.
Among the liberties they take is introducing the character of a transgender, Rayon (Leto). The rodeo-rider Ron is particular about disassociating himself with anything or anyone gay, but Rayon wins him over as both a friend and business partner by refusing to play the marginalised — either because of the HIV or because of his gender. Leto, equally painstakingly thin, doesn’t just immerse himself in the clothes and the makeup, he evokes Rayon’s life with his eyes. Shorn of its more heroic moments, it’s a difficult role than Ron’s and Leto does it well.
One of the screenplay’s other creations is the sympathetic Dr Saks (Garner), who is also wooed to his side by Ron, and who may, in other times, have had a relationship with him. It’s a character that is disappointingly fake, and the stilted Garner doesn’t help. Her doctor boss is another sore thumb.
That’s where the film, shot in the hand-held shaken camera style, falters a bit, in feeling the need to tick all the boxes in Ron’s life when his incredible story needed few embellishments. It may not be the authoritative story on the AIDS scare of the 1980s, but in all that it encompassed, it’s as good as any.