by Philip Price
I never thought myself smart enough to be a doctor and never had any ambition as a child to reach for those stars, but as I got older it became more and more clear why the rewards of such a job might not justify the many negatives that come along with the business of saving lives. There always seem to be these rules in place to dictate how we live and how our society operates and we always seem to come across scenarios where those rules seem completely out of sync with the reality of what is going on in the world. While the latest film in Matthew McConaughey's career turn-around isn't fueled by these issues, but more so by the strength of the human condition, it takes them into a large account due to the fact that in this case our protagonist must deal with humanity as a business and push back against those attempting to somehow make the case that the aforementioned rules outweigh actual humanity. How it all boils down to being a business rather than abiding by the no doubt patient-centric ideals of their mission statement, the pharmaceutical companies and the FDA are the baddies here; one paying the other to push their product no matter the health of their "customers" or the opposing team McConaughey's Ron Woodroof brings to the game that might be better, but doesn't carry the backing which means little extra profit for anyone involved. Why someone chose to tell the story of Woodroof though is because he decided to take up arms against the corporation that began as a gratifying profession and has evolved in many aspects to a business much like any other that deals with products that bring comfort and luxury to our lives but are not providing the luxury of sustaining life as hospitals do (a point many of the doctors represented in the film seem to be missing). Woodroof wasn't the most ideal of people to head this kind of revolution up, he had more faults than he did kind qualities, but it sometimes takes that kind of attitude to say, "screw it, I'll do it my own way if the only option you're offering is to die comfortably." There is just the right amount of rebel cowboy and logical thinking in our main character for him to stand by those words and provide the incredibly gratifying character arc in which director Jean-Marc Vallée's film delivers while opening our eyes to the harsh realities of our systems flawed philosophies.
Beginning in 1985 we are introduced to Woodroof (McConaughey) as he solidifies his straightness by hooking up with two rodeo groupies at the same time under the bleachers. This not only gives us an immediate impression of what kind of person we're dealing with here, but it gives us notification from which angle the story will be coming from and how it might present this in an interesting way. No, Woodroof is not a homosexual, but after an accident on the job he is admitted to the hospital and has blood tests run that determine he is HIV-plus. He is instinctively offended that the doctors would even mention his name and an illness mainly associated with the gay community in the same sentence. That the story will present this take on the struggle for HIV and AIDS patients to find some hope for a cure or a sustainable life from the perspective of a homophobic man allows the film the ability to display the ignorance of those who may share the backwards thinking Ron has at the beginning of the film as well as informing those not educated on the virus and its capabilities both gay and straight. As Ron is at first in denial about the diagnosis Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) and Dr. Sevard (Denis O'Hare) give him (that also comes along with the warning he only has thirty days to live) he immediately reverts back to drinking, using cocaine and having sex with prostitutes. It is beyond his redneck ideologies that he could possibly have this disease, but once he comes to terms with the fact there is indeed something wrong with him and opens his eyes to the fact one can contract the disease through intravenous drug use this revelation begins to improve the type of human being Ron Woodroof was. He meets Rayon (Jared Leto) a gay transvestite who at first repulses him, but who he comes to see is fighting the same battle and has the connections that will help Ron prove that AZT, the most promising treatment for the disease, is doing nothing but causing more harm and as its only in clinical trials is the one the pharmaceutical companies are trying to push forward. Ron finds unapproved drugs in Mexico and other countries that better hold off the virus and sustain the life of those living with the disease better and begins the titular club in order to provide these alternative sources of medication to the people who can't wait on trials and approvals.
When discussing “Dallas Buyers Club” the thing most people will be talking about is the considerable weight loss of star McConaughey and how he prepared to play the role of Ron Woodroof. It is true, his transformation is startling. From the first shot where we see the majority of his body it is somewhat of a shock no matter how many trailers or pictures you may have seen. To see the usually buff and chiseled actor dwindled down to skin and bone with his clothes draped across him and his Adams apple protruding from his throat you immediately think back to his flashier roles in romantic comedies of a decade ago and how truly unrecognizable he is here. What is more startling than the drastic change in appearance though is just how solid McConaughey continues to prove himself to be in these smaller, more character driven films that depend on him playing the guy not as easily likable as those that made him leading man material. As Woodroof, McConaughey disappears into the role and not just because of the physical change, but through the fact that as I watched this film and as it spent at least forty-five minutes setting this character up and who he is, how he looks at the world and what constitutes living to him I began to forget that this was Matthew McConaughey being an actor, but simply took it at face value that this was in fact how the real Ron Woodroof looked, talked, and acted when going through this period of his life. McConaughey doesn't just get that one moment to shine, but instead he gets many throughout the course of the film. He makes this racist and homophobic man turn from his limited point of view into being able to not just see, but accept and change how having a time limit unexpectedly placed on things has the ability to put them into real perspective. This is not all the McConaughey show though as about halfway through we begin to really get to know Leto's Rayon and that his performance is more than capable of stealing the film. Leto is a revelation; being able to disappear even more into the role than his counterpart and on top of that the companionship that develops between he and Woodroof is touching without becoming hokey. That the audience accepts it as genuinely as it does is a testament to how good this pair of performances are, but that Leto is able to make us not necessarily understand, but accept a lifestyle many people don't look lightly on is phenomenal. I'll be surprised if McConaughey doesn't get a nomination for this, but if Leto is left out in the cold that will be a downright shame.
Speaking to the film in general though, it doesn't so much as sweep you up in its process as the performances alone do. The performances by the aforementioned stars are what elevate this piece to a level that will afford it awards consideration and even those I haven't yet mentioned from Garner whose role could have been just as well serving a newcomer, but whose name and presence lend a comforting factor to the proceedings. Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts and Kevin Rankin all show up in supporting roles throughout as well not necessarily adding anything exceptional to the film, but cementing the kind of importance with which the film deserves to be taken. Still, the impression the film leaves you with is not one of great sustainability, but it does have enough coherence and enough of a message that we understand why it deserves the attention it is receiving. One of the tools Vallée uses repeatedly is that of jumping forward in time several months or even years at a time. This is hopefully no spoiler to you given Woodroof is only initially expected to live thirty days, but these leaps in time make the film feel more choppy than I initially expected it to while the narrative drive seems to become a little lost at moments because of this. There are times it seems the film knows it needs to show the toll the disease is taking on Ron and so it has him driving through town or out in the middle of nowhere as he has a breakdown either realizing how severely this disease has affected him or being without treatment for so long that he is starting to develop severe symptoms from the withdrawal of any remedies. I understand that there is of course a level of fiction and interpretation here, but I couldn't help to think that there might have been a more naturalistic way to convey the stress and weight of what Ron was suffering from and where it was forcing him to go with his mental state rather than taking the focus completely away from the complications surrounding the club that were being forced down on him by the FDA and IRS. These are minor complaints though in a film that by the time it comes to a peaceful conclusion has delivered a story that has the capability of appealing to those well-aware of the AIDS crisis and how it changes the lives of those affected (not to mention how it is contracted) as well as those who believe it is a disease strictly specific to the gay community and how homophobia will only bleed into further ignorance in preventing a peace and understanding within all of humanity.