14 November 2013

Review: Dallas Buyers Club


Part-time electrician and some-time bull rider Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) likes to live dangerously, indulging in cocaine, ample amounts of booze and sex with loose women. A mishap on a job scene sends him to the hospital where the news is worse than he could have possibly imagined: Ron has HIV.

His chances of survival are uncertain at best, given only thirty days to live by Dr. Sevard and Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). Unlike most, Ron doesn't just lay back and accept his diagnosis, he rages and rebels convinced that the louder he shouts the less real his positive HIV diagnosis will be. HIV only happens to people like Rock Hudson, not him.



Life following that diagnosis brings immediate changes; Ron heads to the local watering hole to hang with some buddies from the rodeo and work, it is made clear to Ron that his new lifestyle will not fly with the uber-macho, Texan crew he was running with.

Reflecting in a stiff drink, Ron comes to the realization that his diagnosis is more true than he would like to believe. He launches himself into researching possible treatments for the disease, only to find that AZT is the only FDA-approved drug in clinical trials in the US. Ron heads back to Dallas Mercy cash in hand to buy his way into a trial only to be turned down. Not one to take no for an answer, Ron bribes one of the orderlies to leave a bottle of AZT for him behind a dumpster.

Once in his possession, Ron shoots back AZT pills like chasers, combining them with cocktails of cocaine and whiskey, reveling in the same risky behaviors that got him in trouble to begin with. Director Jean-Marc Vallée cuts these weeks in rapid-fire mode, rattling off days at a time of Woodroof's last month on Earth.

When that particular "treatment" doesn't work, Ron is pointed in the direction of Dr. Vass, a physician whose license was revoked in the U.S. for HIV work unsanctioned by the FDA. Vass leads Ron to a treatment made up of other drugs, vitamins, proteins, etc. he claims are more effective in treating because unlike other methods his recognizes that the HIV virus will always be in his system, the trick is to treat the symptoms of HIV rather than the virus.

Rejuvenated, Ron begins to smuggle these non-FDA approved drugs into the US, in hopes of selling them to others in need. Joining him in the venture is a very flamboyant transsexual nicknamed Rayon (Jared Leto). Ron's well-earned reputation as a con man will serve him well in his multitude of schemes to hawk alternative cures, working around the law by establishing a "buyers club" that sells club membership with unlimited treatments. Should that not work he goes as far as dressing up as a priest to avoid the long-arm of the FDA trying to stop Ron and Rayon at every given opportunity.

Vallée and writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack avoid the typical lags that come with biographical pictures that dawdle too long in certain areas and speed through others, by keeping a brisk pace with stylish and effective cuts.

McConaughey's hot streak (starting from 2010's Lincoln Lawyer and continuing through Magic Mike and Mud) has hit a fever pitch with this role. Dropping more than 40 pounds, McConaughey not only physically commits himself to play the part of Ron Woodroof, but to his mindset as well. Unlike a lot of bio-pics where a character with hard edges is sanded down miraculously before the credits roll, Woodroof's homophobia wears off gradually and in interaction with Rayon rather than pure sentiment.

Matching McConaughey beat-for-beat in this showcase of acting, Leto creates his own multi-layered portrait with just a little flair of his own (Leto literally draws a curtain back when he makes his entrance into Dallas Buyers Club).

Dallas Buyers Club's main and persistent flaw is that it doesn't strive to say or add anything to the AIDS conversation. As Ron's battle draws near an end, his enthusiasm dampens and the film loses some of the energy that made Woodroof's story so compelling. Fortunately, Dallas Buyers Club sticks to its complex characters instead of turning them into puzzle pieces that fit into a plot. It is for this reason that the film feels real, not just "based on a true story."