One of last year’s best documentary feature nominees is now one of this year’s most talked-about films. Dallas Buyers Club narrativizes How to Survive a Plague, which dealt with the AIDS crisis of the 1990s and victims’ efforts to obtain medicine to treat their illness(es), and focuses on the true story of Ron Woodroof’s battle with HIV in mid- to late-80s Dallas, Texas. While I didn’t find Dallas Buyers Club as emotionally riveting throughout, Matthew McConaughey gives an unforgettable performance conveying Woodroof’s emotional, spiritual, and physical trauma in tangible ways.
Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Woodroof, a hard living, drug-using, unprotected-sex-having, cowboy electrician. He is not well when we first meet him as nothing more than a coughing bag of bones running from the bull-riders from whom he just stole a stack of money. When a work-related injury sends him to the hospital, Drs. Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) and Saks (Jennifer Garner) inform him that numerous blood tests reveal that he is HIV positive and has thirty days to live. He freaks out, swears that he’s not a “faggot,” and tells them he’ll live well past his allotted thirty days. Through his own research of HIV and AIDS, he quickly learns that he contracted the disease through all of his unprotected sexual encounters. At the same time, he learns about new pharmaceutical developments around the world and drugs he could take to help treat his symptoms. Unfortunately, the drugs that Woodroof, and others like him, needs have yet to be approved by the FDA for use in the United States.
Disguised as a cancer-stricken priest, Woodroof first travels back and forth to Mexico to obtain the drugs and eventually travels as far as Amsterdam, Israel, Germany, and Japan when the authorities catch onto his border-crossing missions. Frustrated at the hospital’s inability to adequately respond to the crisis, Woodroof creates a buyers club, common in places like NYC and San Francisco at the time, in which HIV/AIDS patients could pay membership dues and obtain the medicines they need. Such clubs operated in legal dark gray areas and were often shut down by the FDA and other authorities for trading in unapproved medicine. Along the way, Woodroof befriends Rayon (Jared Leto), an HIV+ transvestite, who helps him grow his membership. Their relationship changes Woodroof, softening his homophobia as they grow closer together and as Woodroof sees the diversity and desperation of the patients he helps.
Based on its score over on Rotten Tomatoes (95%), Dallas Buyers Club is something of a critical darling. There seem to be two separate phenomena to review here, the film as a whole and McConaughey’s performance in it. As a complete cinematic work of art, Dallas Buyers Club leaves something to be desired. It ran a bit too long and dragged in places. Many of the other performances, including Leto’s which has also been praised, feel stale. Leto’s performance isn’t as weak as it is limited, simply vacillating between a trannie that either teases Woodroof or lolls around in a high stupor. How to Survive a Plague is a riveting documentary that benefits from feeling like a scripted feature. Of course, that we are watching people die before our very eyes in the documentary adds an emotional impact that no feature could provide. Yet for all its intensity, Dallas Buyers Club comes up short in this respect and ends on a rather emotionally puzzling note.
At the same time, I found myself marveling at McConaughey’s performance, especially considering his work in this year’s Mud and his role in The Wolf of Wall Street, releasing later this year. Depending on how Wolf turns out, this could be the strongest run of McConaughey’s career, with his greatest performance right in the middle. You can see from the trailer the physical lengths to which he went to portray Woodroof’s shrunken frame. It’s right up there with Michael Fassbender’s performance in Hunger. His physical stature and acting prowess, combined with sharp direction and cinematography (built on intense closeups and jarring transitions), create a character that is at once repulsive and deserving of our affection and care.
From a spiritual standpoint, there is much to discuss here. Woodroof is a broken man, who medicates with women, booze, and drugs. It is unfortunate that we see no religious organizations or figures reaching out to help Woodroof and his fellow victims. There’s a great scene in which it appears that Woodroof is praying in a cathedral, asking God to give him a sign of assistance. In reality, he’s in a strip club staring up at a topless dancer. Moments later, he looks across the bar and sees the hospital orderly that will eventually smuggle him doses of AZT. When his hard-partying friends abandon him, taking him for a plague-infected “faggot,” Rayon comes to the rescue, looking past Woodroof’s rough exterior and embracing the terrified person within.
Woodroof and Rayon’s relationship contains one of the many morals of the story here. Through it, the film reveals that changes in mind, heart, and, by extension, policy come through relationships. Changing the world around us for the better is not so much about philosophizing or theorizing about the way the world is or should be as it is about developing relationships with those who suffer around us, those who we might avoid out of fear or actively marginalize. In contracting HIV, Woodroof became painfully vulnerable, but in this vulnerability, he experienced transformation. Dallas Buyers Club implicitly challenges us to embrace vulnerability and impact the broken communities of which we are a part.
Dallas Buyers Club (117 mins.) is in wide release and is rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity, and drug use.