Dallas Buyers Club is a must-see

Movies about HIV/AIDS are often criticized — fairly I think — for being a theatre of despair and misery. It’s a testament to how uncomfortable we still are with the virus that filmmakers are hamstrung with telling the same story over and over again. ( Angels in America is one of the few outlier examples.) Dallas Buyers Club offers a (mostly) healthy corrective to that narrative. The movie already has a ton of buzz and it lives up to the hype.

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a good ol’ Texas cowboy spending his days betting at the rodeo and partying the nights away. He’s battling a persistent cough and strange black sores that seem to be spreading across his body but a steady diet of drugs and alcohol numb the pain. After an accident at work he winds up in the hospital and is told he’s tested positive for HIV/AIDS. The doctors are amazed he’s still alive — his T-cell count is nearly zero and they give him 30 days to live. He’s more offended than horrified. Only gay men get AIDS and Ron is a skirt-chaser unapologetic racist and homophobic redneck. It’s the summer of 1985 and AIDS has just started to become an epidemic with thousands of people becoming sick and suffering from protracted painful deaths. Ron learns that not only are gay men at risk of contracting HIV but also straight folks with a penchant for loads of unprotected sex and intravenous drug use. He starts to conduct his own homegrown research and learns of a new drug AZT that could prolong his life.

He can’t get his hands on the drug so starts buying it illegally. That leads him on a path to Mexico where he learns of other drugs (more like vitamins and proteins really) not nearly as toxic as AZT. He starts hustling them across the border selling them to an increasingly desperate community of HIV/AIDS patients. Begrudgingly along for the ride is Rayon (Jared Leto) a transgender hustler who’s looking for a way to stay one step ahead of the virus. Ron also has to contend with Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) a sympathetic doctor who admires his efforts and becomes increasingly suspicious of a medical industry that’s being controlled by pharmaceutical companies. Inspired by a similar movement in New York City Ron starts selling memberships to his clientele for $400 a month (all the drugs you need are covered) and the Dallas Buyers Club is born.

Both leads McConaughey and Leto are fantastic. Usually radical changes in physical appearance are a gimmicky actor’s shortcut and director Jean-Marc Vallée occasionally lingers on their emaciated bodies as if to prove to the audience that they’ve really suffered for their art. Mercifully the performances are so lived-in and riveting that the body fetishizing largely passes inoffensively. Leto’s transformation is a million times more successful than his last attempt as John Lennon killer Mark David Chapman in the dire Chapter 27 where he gained loads of fat and spoke in a whiny baby voice in the hope that someone would notice. (Nobody did.) Dallas Buyers Club is a project worth the effort. Both he and McConaughey pull off performances that appear effortless despite the heady material. The only other character competing for screen time is Garner’s wounded doctor. She doesn’t make much of an impression but it’s a thankless role without much to offer.

The last third of the film is meandering and treacly betraying its darkly comic tone. What’s so fascinating about Ron is that he’s an unrepentant bigot only in it for the cash and saving his own ass. Nonetheless the film is a welcome change from the usual death and disease movie that favours martyrdom over honesty. Dallas Buyers Club is mostly that kind of movie. For that alone it’s a must-see.