Dallas Buyers Club (2013) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use
Running Time: 117 min.

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne, Denis O'Hare, Dallas Roberts
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Screenplay: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack

Review published November 21 2013

Dallas Buyers Club is a drama directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria, C.R.A.Z.Y.), based on the true-life account of Ron Woodroof, a drug-peddling, Texas alcoholic and womanizer who contracted the HIV virus in 1986, in the middle of the AIDS scare and rampant homophobia surrounding the disease. Matthew McConaughey (Mud, Fool's Gold) stars as Woodroof, who found out quite late that not only does he have HIV, but it has developed into full-blown AIDS, and his doctor has given him about 30 days left to live. Unwilling to take the doctors' word for it, or submit to death before all avenues are exhausted, Woodroof takes to getting a supply of AIDS-combating drug, AZT, illegally, though the side effects are particularly nasty, ultimately forcing Woodroof to find  a better means to prolong his life from unapproved meds and vitamins available in Mexico.

Sensing a moneymaking opportunity selling the unapproved drugs to ailing people in the U.S., Woodroof starts up the 'Dallas Buyers Club', in which the medication is free but the membership to the club is $400. But with the FDA, IRS, and local physicians on his case, not to mention his own struggle to stay alive, the prospects look ever bleaker for Woodroof's business, as well as the longevity of those people helped by the alternative medicine they have grown to rely on.

McConaughey's performance at the center of this thought-provoking drama is the film's greatest asset, as he transforms himself not only into an unlikeable (defiantly, but not uncommonly, homophobic) character in Woodroof, but also has dropped a great deal of weight (a little over three dozen lbs.) in order to look gaunt enough for the part. It's one of many roles in McConaughey's own personal transformation as an actor, formerly known for light comedies and romances, now taking on more serious, less glamorous parts that have revealed a truly great actor underneath the winning smile and good looks.

Equally impressive is the star-making turn by Jared Leto (Chapter 27, Lord of War) in his first film in four years, who also lost about 30 lbs. for the role, as Woodroof's transgendered streetwalker-turned-business partner, Rayon. Jennifer Garner (The Invention of Lying, Juno) and Steve Zahn (Management, Sunshine Cleaning) round out the supporting cast as the sympathetic Dr. Saks and police officer who deal with Woodroof on a number of occasions. However, a nearly unrecognizable Griffin Dunne (40 Days and 40 Nights, After Hours) gives a strong-yet-subtle performance as Dr. Vass, the physician who lost his license by prescribing unapproved meds shown to work wonders, eventually leaving him to do business in Mexico in an effort to save as many lives as possible.

There are a few nitpick-y issues I do have with the screenplay by Craig Borten (who interviewed the real Woodroof in 1992)  and Melisa Wallack (Meet Bill), though none are substantive enough to break the film in any way. One is that many of the characters in the film did not exist in reality, but rather, they are amalgams of several real-life people not associated with Woodroof, that have been turned into single supporting characters, ostensibly for the purpose of broadening the film's scope, as well as putting in more supporting stars like Leto and Garner. Compounding the economy of characters, the only representative from the FDA, regardless of location, happens to be the same character, and there is always the same cop coming in to do the bust or who happens to be around when Woodroof is found driving crazy and roaming the streets, such narrative shortcuts appear as implausible from a true-to-life telling.

Another, perhaps lesser, annoying narrative device is the "30 days to live" declaration by the doctor who examines Woodroof. More plausible would have been "about a month, maybe two" or "four to six weeks, perhaps", but, literally "30 days". THis is followed up by inter-titles announcing, "Day One", "Day Two", etc., as some sort of countdown to imminent death at the end, as if we're literally going to see Woodroof's death on the exact day foretold by the doctor who initially examined him.

While Dallas Buyers Club, as a film, might fall short of greatness from a plot-construction perspective, its performances are commanding and the interest level never wavers throughout. Underneath the story of one man's struggle to stay alive, there is also some choice food for through regarding how the FDA and the medical industry are sometimes a hindrance to wellness rather than a help.  It's also an indirect indictment on the power of the pharmaceutical industry to push expensive drugs on a needy population, rather than allow them seek natural, homeopathic remedies that are shown to work far better.

Dallas Buyers Club is a remarkably unsentimental look at a problem that most filmmakers would normally coat with an overbearing emotional appeal, yet still comes out as ultimately poignant and, at times, heartbreaking. It also paints a rare picture of the complexities of the HIV/AIDS crisis from a personal perspective -- a disease which has been largely ignored in Hollywood, despite its devastating impact on societies around the world.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo