Dallas Buyers Club review: the personal is political

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Dallas Buyers Club green light Jared Leto Matthew McConaughey

There’s nothing the least bit sentimental here. Nothing flashy or showy in McConaughey’s rough-edged portrait. But there is enormous compassion.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): haven’t been a McConaughey fan

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Could be the very best thing about Dallas Buyers Club is that it instantly and effortlessly brushes aside any preconceived snarkery one might bring to it. Or that I might bring to it, at least. You know, like how the lead actor’s public dramatic weight loss in preparation for portraying a dying man in a based-on-a-sad-true-story issues drama is — *snort* and eyeroll — a sure bid for an Oscar nom by a celeb mostly previously known for dreadful rom-coms and bad offscreen behavior and now desperate to be seen as serious. Gotta be, right?

Not this time. Though that Oscar nomination is probably coming anyway, and it’ll be genuinely deserved. It’s an understatement to say that I have not been a fan of Matthew McConaughey — his supposedly sexy onscreen persona has never done anything but skeeve me out — but even his very good and very not-his-usual-thing performance in this spring’s Mud did not prepare me for his work here. There is nothing flashy or showy in McConaughey’s rough-edged portrait of a small-minded man who learns the world is so much bigger than he ever wanted to accept. There is nothing in the least bit sentimental in it. But there is enormous compassion, of the sort that seems to imply that McConaughey cares more about doing justice to a hard-to-like yet ultimately honorable man than in whatever we might think of how he’s going about that task.

McConaughey’s (Magic Mike, Bernie) Ron Woodroof is not a nice guy when we meet him, in early 1980s Texas. He’s a swaggering bigot, confident in his place at the top of the cultural food chain, as a straight white guy, and of his own immortality. But an accident at work — he’s an electrician and takes a mighty jolt that knocks him out — leads to a hospital visit, which leads to the discovery that not only is he HIV positive, not only does he have full-blown AIDS, but it’s so far advanced that the doctors figure he’s got maybe a month to live. (Startling reminder of the times? Those doctors — played by Jennifer Garner [The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Arthur] and Denis O’Hare [J. Edgar, The Eagle] — are wearing protective face masks when they break this news to him, as if the virus might go airborne at any moment.)

Two stories spin off from that moment, one personal and one political.

The personal is Woodroof’s transformation from a guy who rejects the notion that he join an AIDS support group because it’s for “fags” to a guy whose best friend and business partner is a transgender woman, Rayon (Jared Leto [Lord of War, Alexander], who is magnificent here). Screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack (Mirror Mirror) offer simple scenarios that smack Woodroof with the new realities of his life and the abrupt understanding it brings him, as when his gang of buddies suddenly treat him, literally, like an untouchable leper and he faces the same hatred he once dished out. Director Jean-Marc Vallée does not embellish these moments, or linger on them. One scene, in which Woodroof comes to Rayon’s defense in the middle of a supermarket, is over before we quite realize what an about-face it represents for Woodroof.

The political is the deplorable reality of AIDS research and care at the time, and how Woodroof is forced to invent his own treatment with illegally imported drugs, which leads to him taking on the FDA, which becomes an accidental pushing for big changes in how AIDS is treated in the United States. (McConaughey’s Woodroof mentions how he was inspired by “some queers up in New York” he read about in the news, by which he means the members of ACT-UP, who did much what we see Woodroof also do here; see the documentary How to Survive a Plague.) Once Woodroof comes to terms with his diagnosis, that’s only the beginning of his battles: you kinda can’t tell a guy that he’s got 30 days to live and then follow up with news of a drug trial starting in six months. Woodroof’s experience acquiring illegal recreational drugs helps him at first, and the same sorts of things that pot and coke dealers do — smuggling and selling on the sly — soon morphs, for Woodroof and Rayon, into a sort of syndicate, the Dallas Buyers Club, to get around FDA restrictions on selling unapproved pharmaceuticals brought in from other countries. The idea is that you can give them away to club members who’ve paid a fee to join but you can’t sell them the drugs directly.

Healthcare in America, amirite?

It’s ridiculous… and that’s the point. Dallas Buyers Club may be historical, but it does an excellent job of tapping into outrage over the state of healthcare in America — then and now — and suspicions about the FDA putting corporate profits above citizens’ well-being. We may have gotten more enlightened as a culture about AIDS victims — a Ron Woodroof today would not be so casual about his (former) homophobia — but this story is far from a piece of pure history.

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll, anti-abuse measure. If your comment is not spam, trollish, or abusive, it will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately. (Further comments may still be deleted if spammy, trollish, or abusive, and continued such behavior will get your account deleted and banned.)
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Fri, Nov 15, 2013 5:57pm

This is definitely becoming McConaughey’s new thing: to accept and use his skeeviness and unlikeability to produce a likeable-but-flawed character, rather than to pretend it isn’t there. Good for him! Though I’m definitely hearing nomination buzz for Leto as well.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Fri, Nov 15, 2013 6:53pm

Definitely likely for Leto, yes.