Watching “Dallas Buyers Club”
The new film “Dallas Buyers Club” isn’t the best film of the year, and I doubt most critics would give rank it among their favorite films of the year. And when I walked out of the theater, I would have been inclined to agree with them. “Well, that was pretty good,” I said, damning it with faint praise. But a day later, I’m still thinking about the “Dallas Buyers Club.” I still feel attached to its characters. If DBC isn’t one of the best films of the year, well, it’s certainly one of the most affecting.
“Dallas Buyers Club” is anchored by two amazing performances. Matthew McConaughey is Ron Woodruff, a hard-partying electrician/rodeo rider diagnosed with AIDS and told he has just 30 days to live. Jared Leto plays Rayon, a transgender woman who becomes his unlikely business partner.
After a middling career filled with unforgettable parts, McConaughey is in the midst of a career renaissance, and Ron Woodruff is one of his most memorable roles. Jared Leto has always been a good actor (I loved him in 2000’s “Requiem for a Dream”), but he hasn’t always had a chance to prove it. I’m hoping he wins an Oscar for his work as Rayon, and is rewarded with a McConaughey-like career resurgence. I’m not just praising Leto for making a risky career choice. His Rayon is full-fledged individual, sweet, funny, sad and tough. Together, he and McConaughey make for one of the more compelling cinematic odd couples of 2013.
Based on a true story, “Dallas Buyers Club” is set in the early days of the AIDS crisis, when the disease was mainly restricted to gay men and intravenous drug users. Woodruff is a homophobe and a bigot; when he’s first diagnosed with AIDS, his reaction is one of disbelief and denial. But he doesn’t want to die, and begins researching the disease and treatment options, which are minimal; AZT, which he’s told is the most promising drug, is only available to patients enrolled in a trial. Woodruff seeks help from a doctor in Mexico, where he learns of other, promising drugs that haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It isn’t long before he’s importing these drugs back over the border and providing them to AIDS patients, making an enemy of the FDA and the medical establishment.
The film is an underdog story, about a bunch of outcasts fighting the system, but it’s also a story of personal transformation. Woodruff gradually evolves, from the sort of guy who might beat up someone like Rayon to one of Rayon’s most loyal friends. “Dallas Buyers Club” works very well as a period piece, reminding viewers of the fear and hysteria of the early days of the AIDS era, and the struggles of gay and trans people to find acceptance. The scene where Rayon SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! dresses in a suit and meets his estranged-banker father was so heartbreaking it almost made me cry. But the film is never maudlin, or preachy, and Woodruff’s transformation always seems like the logical outcome of his suddenly dire circumstances.
Directed by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee, “Dallas Buyers Club” has been criticized for turning doctors and government regulators into villains (the sympathetic doctor played by Jennifer Garner is an exception), and for a lack of nuance in depicting the search for a cure for AIDS. There’s some truth to this, but I’d argue that people seeking the unvarnished truth should turn to other sources than a Hollywood movie. The 2012 AIDS documentaries “How To Survive a Plague” and “United in Anger: A History of ACT UP” are both good places to start, and there’s always “And the Band Played On.”
In any case, “Dallas Buyers Club” is just one story, and a pretty good one at that.
For more on the real Dallas Buyers Club, visit www.buyersclubdallas.com.
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