After a stellar, revelatory last couple of years (THE LINCOLN LAWYER, MAGIC MIKE, KILLER JOE, BERNIE) and still more to come in the next few months (Scorsese's THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and the HBO series "True Detective"), those of us who enjoy the hell out of watching Matthew McConaughey work probably thought they had a pretty good idea what the actor was capable of. And then along comes DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, in which McConaughey plays real-life Texan Ron Woodroof who had unprotected sex with an army of women and did every type of drug available at the time. He was also an unapologetic homophobe, who in 1985 was diagnosed not just HIV-positive, but as having full-blown AIDS with a life expectancy of 30 days.
When he makes the mistake of telling one of his fellow rednecks that he has the disease, his friends immediately shut him out; Ron retaliates by spitting on them in a bar. That's the kind of guy he is. But Woodroof was also amazingly resourceful and charming (he didn't get all of those women in bed with him because he was rich), and as he grew more and more frustrated with his lack of treatment options—it was clear that the original AIDS medication AZT was only poisoning him—he used his vast knowledge of how to acquire drugs illicitly to seek out alternative treatments from all over the world.
After a few months, Woodroof had not only beaten the 30-day death sentence but had also begun to regain his strength and get his T-cell numbers back to more manageable levels. Now Ron being an entrepreneur, he saw an opportunity. If he could get these non-FDA-approved drugs into the country in mass quantities, he could not only keep himself in good shape but others too...for a price. And so he founded the DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, which not surprisingly put Ron in close and constant contact with a gay clientele whom he was disgusted by. Thankfully, this telling of Ron Woodroof's life does not involve Ron suddenly becoming a compassionate man who ejects all forms of hatred and prejudice from his life; that would by too convenient and phony.
But what French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (THE YOUNG VICTORIA) does instead is gives us the gift of a character named Rayon, an HIV-positive transvestite played by Jared Leto, who reminds us what an powerful and death-defying actor he can be. Rayon not only is a handsome woman, but she essentially doesn't give Ron a choice but to enjoy her company. They meet in the hospital where Ron first gets his diagnosis, and they bond through their mutual friendship with the sympathetic Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). Ron is repulsed by Rayon, but this is nothing new to her, and with a combination of a slight Southern drawl and a good heart, Rayon wins the day.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is one of the most perfectly American stories I've seen in quite awhile. Ron Woodroof is a go-getter, knowledgeable in the ways of cutting out the middle man and working his way around molasses-slow government bureaucracy. Not everything he's doing is illegal, but that's only because the FDA was too narrow-minded to think of it. Woodruff was able to use his skills to keep himself alive without having to give up too much of what he believes in and despises. He's smart enough to know that insulting his clients would cause him to lose business, so he stashes the bigotry for cash. You don't have to like Ron to appreciate what he did or this film.
The film is also one of the strongest statements I've ever seen for patient advocacy—taking control of your own treatment, doing your own research and making decisions about the medication combination that works best for the individual rather than the masses. But that message is secondary compared the one about forming friendships in the strangest places in times of crisis. Looking at the emaciated McConaughey, basically stripped of his youthful good looks, is only part of the experience of watching this film. And I genuinely feel that the world is a slightly better place because of Leto's performance as Rayon, Ron's most protective defender and an angel of mercy to hundreds of people that Ron sees as customers but she sees as fellow travelers and hopeful survivors.
There's not a hint of sentimentality in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB; if anything, director Vallee tends to swing the other way and makes the hard ways of the world seem too hard to bear. The endless battles Woodroof endured with the government, the FDA and others that would seek to shut him down are exhausting just to watch, so I can only imagine what it was like to go through it while still trying to stay alive. Ron doesn't apologize for what he is and thinks, but he's a classic case of better the devil you know than the one you don't know. He's not an evil man, but I'm guessing he said and did a lot worse than the movie tells us. The film asks us to accept that Ron's work for the greater trumps all, and that's probably a safe statement. It's impossible to watch DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and be unmoved, and in the end, despite yourself, you may end up liking Ron Woodroof after all. Trust me, there are worse things.