In the mid-1980s, during the height of the AIDS crisis in America, electrician Ron Woodruff – a hard-livin’, hard-drinkin’ cowboy who made money on the side hustling at the rodeo – was diagnosed by HIV. Doctors gave him 30 days to live, and suggested he think about getting his affairs in order.
Woodruff was incredulous: he wasn’t a homosexual, there was no way he could have the disease. But Ron knew that something was very wrong with his body, and soon came to accept the situation. There was only one problem: while there were drugs out there that might be able to help him, he couldn’t (legally) obtain them. Some weren’t approved by the FDA, and others were only in clinical trials.
While the drugs themselves weren’t illegal, it was illegal to buy or sell them in the US. Ironically, it was illegal for Ron to take the actions that could potentially save his life.
The titular Dallas Buyers Club – modeled after similar clubs that had been started in other cities – was created by Ron after he travelled to Mexico for treatment – and realized there might be some money in this. For a monthly membership fee, Ron would distribute drugs that were obtained abroad amongst fellow AIDS patients in Dallas. His motive may have initially been profit, but he soon found himself as a crusader fighting the FDA.
In director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, Woodruff is played by Matthew McConaughey in a performance that is all-but assured of winning this year’s Oscar. McConaughey lost 50 pounds for the role of the AIDS patient, and invigorates the screen with a rough-sawn performance that is only partially imbued with his trademark swagger. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat the character either: Woodruff is presented as a misogynist and a homophobe, and any transformation he undergoes is subtly handled.
The supporting cast is similarly first-rate, with Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner as the doctors who inform Ron of his condition, Griffin Dunne as a expatriate doctor working in Mexico, Steve Zahn as a local police officer, Michael O’Neill as an FDA official, Dallas Roberts as Ron’s lawyer, and a colorful range of actors as Ron’s co-workers, rodeo hounds, and (on the other side of the spectrum) fellow patients.
But the supporting cast in dominated by a revelatory turn by Jared Leto as a transgender AIDS patient who shares Ron’s hospital room and eventually becomes his business partner. There isn’t much to the character of Rayon – who we know little about – but Leto, who lost 30 pounds for the role, is unforgettable in the role. Like McConaughey, he’s a favorite to win an Oscar for his performance.
We never find out how Woodruff contracted the AIDS virus – which likely echoes the real-life situation – but director Vallée subtly interjects brief flashback shots implying promiscuity and drug use to echo what must have been running through Woodruff’s mind.
We know going in that this story will not have a happy ending, but there’s a kind of catharsis in the knowledge that Woodruff’s struggle meant something: his battle against the FDA, while not exactly landmark legal precedent, nevertheless highlighted what was wrong with the system. In the film, this is exemplified by an impassioned speech by the judge in the case: “the law doesn’t seem to make much sense sometimes… if a person is found to be terminally ill, they ought to be able to take anything they feel will help.”
Five short years ago, Matthew McConaughey was in rom-com Hell: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Fool’s Gold, Failure to Launch… now in the midst of a career resurgence, he’s about to win an Oscar. He was also dynamite (in a small role) in The Wolf of Wall Street and, earlier this year, in Jeff Nichols’ Mud; his turn in the new HBO series True Detective is transformative. He deserves all the accolades he can get.