The kind of true story that manages to earn the description “inspirational” without debasing its subject matter with “important” platitudes or false drama, Dallas Buyers Club is a remarkable tribute to inadvertent heroism.
Starring Matthew McConaughey as an AIDS patient whose search for a cure led him to help hundreds, even thousands, of people who needed medication, Jean-Marc Vallee’s film may sound like a classic, cliché-laden message movie and an awards-season slam dunk. But McConaughey’s performance, and an understated, unglamorous approach to the subject matter, elevates Dallas Buyers Club into something truly special, humanizing a monstrous disease while telling an often-amazing tale.
McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a carpenter whose reckless days of womanizing come to an end after he is diagnosed with AIDS and told by doctors Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Saks (Jennifer Garner) he has 30 days to live. Still binging on alcohol and cocaine, he repeatedly finds himself in the hospital, and begins taking AZT, a medicine that’s supposed to keep the disease at bay. But after trekking to Mexico in search of a cheaper alternative, Woodroof learns that AZT is not helping, and he should instead take a combination of other medicines and vitamins that are much more helpful.
Teaming with an HIV-positive transsexual named Rayon (Jared Leto), who helps shape his rough sales pitch into something more marketable, Ron starts an illegal business that he dubs the Dallas Buyers Club. But after the Food and Drug Administration begins investigating the large shipments he’s importing from other countries, Ron’s business falters, even as his health becomes increasingly dependent on the medicines he sells to others.
Suffice it to say that the details of Woodroof’s business venture make for an amazing story by themselves, in terms of his pioneering attempts to provide other options for AIDS patients. But Woodroof’s own unlikely story gives that basic triumph greater substance and depth, not just because he began selling drugs for practical reasons, but because it became a balm for not just a poisoned body, but a poisoned mind as well. Like many people who learned about AIDS in the mid-1980s, Woodroof initially thinks the disease is an affliction limited to gays, and is himself relentlessly homophobic. But after contracting HIV, he begins to learn what that sort of ostracization feels like when his friends believe he is gay, and in an entirely believable and unforced way, begins to come around on looking at its other victims in a more compassionate way.
That isn’t to say he becomes an advocate for gay rights – and the film manages a deft balance between his evolving tolerance and its underlying pragmatism. Rayon can get him customers he couldn’t reach, especially given his (initially) homophobic disposition, and Vallee never turns their relationship into a heartstring-tugging redemption story, even if it does feel incredibly powerful. But the complexity and substance of McConaughey and Leto’s performances is what gives it that resonance, even as the story’s prioritization of “the business” – Woodroof’s scrambling efforts to find suppliers and antagonize government officials – provides suitable drama to keep the narrative moving forward.
Like many of the best, most meaningful and most enduring films, Dallas Buyers Club is life-affirming and deeply affecting, but it carries none of that obligation in its execution. Rather, Vallee seems content merely to tell the story of a man whose provincial views about himself and the world around him are slowly, quietly, almost inadvertently transformed. All of which is why audiences may find themselves similarly transported through the film: thanks to its real-world source material, Dallas Buyers Club carries the expectation of something “important,” but in moving beyond that surface-level significance, and finding the affecting story underneath, it becomes truly profound.
Dallas Buyers Club opens Friday.