Dallas Buyers Club

© 2013 Ray Wong

Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club chronicles a Dallas man’s plight against the FDA to save his own life while trying to make a difference for a change.

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a electrician who moonlights as a rodeo cowboy in Dallas. After being sent to the hospital for a work-related incident, Ron is diagnosed with AIDS. Neither an intravenous drug user or a homosexual, he refuses to believe he’s contracted the gay plaque. But evidence eventually proves him wrong, that he does have AIDS, and according to Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare), Ron has only a month to live.

Desperate to survive, Ron at first steals the experimental drug AZT from the hospital. When that supply dries up, he ventures to Mexico to seek alternative treatments. There, he learns that AZT is poison and will eventually kill him regardless whether he has AIDS or not, and that there is a “cocktail” of unapproved drugs that actually works. Driven by greed at first, Ron smuggles the drugs back to the US to sell for profit. With the help of a transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto), Ron quickly expands his client base. The more he sells the drugs to the “homos” such as Rayon, the more he realizes how utterly ignorant and homophobic he is.

Soon, though, the FDA catches on and tries to stop Ron from doling out these drugs. They confiscate his supplies and threatens to arrest Ron for illegal drug trafficking. But Ron finds a way and starts a subscription-only program called the Dallas Buyers Club, so technically speaking he is not selling drugs — he is selling memberships. And Ron is the living proof that the drugs work! Business is brisk, and Ron begins to realize that despite his intention and narrow views, he is actually helping people while the FDA, funded by the big US pharmaceuticals, are killing people. Unwittingly, Ron takes the FDA in his crusade to make the drugs available to those in need.

Matthew McConaughey (Mud) has always been one of Hollywood’s new, prominent method actors, and for the role of Ron Woodroof, McConaughey physically transforms himself by losing so much weight that he’s almost unrecognizable as the hunky movie star. Mentally and emotionally he also transforms himself into a man who is unrefined, crude, and homophobic. Ron Woodroof is not a likable character by any stretch, but McConaughey makes it work and make us sympathize with Ron, who is a seriously flawed man but finds his purpose via a tragic personal event. McConaughey’s performance is both physically and spiritually transformative, and will likely get an Oscar nomination.

Jared Leto (Mr. Nobody) also loses significant weight and dons dresses and makeup to play transvestite Rayon. Leto matches McConaughey’s intensity and humor to give a tour-de-force performance as one of the film’s most likable and sympathetic characters. Jennifer Garner (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) has a harder job with her morally ambiguous role as Dr. Eve Saks, but she fares well. Supporting cast also includes Denis O’Hare (J. Edgar) as a corporate-friendly doctor, and Steve Zahn (Escape from Planet Earth) as a cop friend of Ron’s.

The screenplay by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack (Mirror Mirror) is heavily character-driven. The plot amounts to a series of character movements and mishaps, but the core of the story lies in the relationships between the characters, specifically between Ron and Rayon, two unlikely friends. The screenplay has the difficult job of making us like Ron Woodroof, but through a series of careful character development and the lead actor’s heartfelt performance, they’ve succeeded in telling this difficult story about a difficult man. Borten and Wallack also manage to avoid much melodrama and over-the-top theatrics, so the story feels grounded, if somewhat “boring” by today’s Hollywood standards.

Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) directs the movie with a near-documentary style that also helps ground the film. His no-thrill camerawork and location shots give the story a needed reality. Vallee also doesn’t let the story apologize for the characters, and the production reflects that philosophy by revealing some harder truths. It’s not always pleasant, but that’s precisely the point. These are not always-pleasant characters in pleasant situations, but Vallee handles the production with a gritty sense of purpose. The result, though, does tend to undermine the production value as the film feels, at times, unpolished. But I credit that more to the style of the storytelling than Vallee’s directorial skills.

Dallas Buyers Club is a small film with an intimate cast of characters but big themes — government corruption, big corporate profits, the blurry lines of morality. Because of a nuanced script and stellar performances by the actors, the movie works. Don’t expect anything life-changing though. In many ways, this is what Oscar-baits look like.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Writers: Craig Borten, Melissa Wallack
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, strong sexual content, nudity, drug use
Running Time: 117 minutes


Script - 7
Performance - 9
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 7

Total - 7.7 out of 10.0 

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