“Dallas Buyer’s Club” Review

You know how it goes. One minute you’re going at it with a blonde and a brunnette in the dirty stall at a rodeo and the next minute you’re managing a pharmaceutical distributor that’s saving the lives of yourself and hundreds of others afflicted with HIV/AIDS. I joke when I shouldn’t, but this is exactly the kind of shocking juxtaposition that makes Dallas Buyer’s Club the best biographical drama picture I’ve seen in what just might be forever.

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Ledo as Rayon and McConaughey as Ron

Dallas Buyer’s Club is Jean-Marc Valee’s new movie about the real-life accomplishments and misadventures of Ron Woodroof, a man stricken with AIDS in 1985 who starts a “buyer’s club” in Dallas, Texas to distribute smuggled “drugs” (non-FDA approved vitamins and protein complexes) to victims of the disease. In doing so Woodroof takes on the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As medical professionals in the mid ’80s fail to treat the disease in any effective way (essentially using human patients as lab rats to test new drugs), this movie brings to question the true motives of the government agency that is controlled by *cough* err, I mean, “works closely with” the pharmaceutical industries.

Buyer’s Club stars Matthew McConaughey in what is clearly the highest point in his career (particularly when you consider his other supposedly great performance in Mud), and it also features Jared Leto and Jennifer Gardner as well. Steve Zahn and the guy who plays vampire Russell Edgington also make appearances, though the latter is an ineffectual doctor this time around and not a badass bloodsucker.

When Dallas Buyer’s Club kicks off, we’re greeted by the grimy, sweaty scene at a bull fighting arena. We hear the groans and pants of a three-way before we are taken into the stall to catch glimpses of thrusts cut between shots of bulls goring men and clowns dancing around. The whole thing is meant to be a freakish horror show, and it is. Within a few short minutes, Ron Woodroof has gone from having unprotected sex with two random women at once to swindling gamblers out of their money. He’s punched a cop and been dragged home to snort coke before finally passing out cold. I only give you these spoilers from the opening few minutes because they so clearly display who we think Ron Woodroff is. We are meant to judge him, not because we jealously want to have a raunchy three-way in a dirty stall too, but because Woodroff’s laundry list of sins is scrolling off the page before you can even collect your thoughts. He’s a bad man. Isn’t he?

The next day, blow in his nose and conscience clear, Ron goes to work. He’s an electrician with a company managing oil rigs somewhere in the middle of Texas no-where. There’s some sort of a malfunction on a rig. Ron goes to check it out and a crowd of men is surrounding an illegal immigrant that got his leg stuck in a giant gear. Blood. Bone. Gasps. The manager? Pleading with Ron to fix it, because this man is an illegal immigrant and they don’t want to get the company in trouble. Ron tosses the immigrant his side-bottle full of whiskey, demands the manager call an ambulance, and quickly begins working on a nearby control panel, determined to help this poor man.

ZAP. Electrocuted. Fade to black.

My beat-by-beat plot summary officially ends here, because those two sequences so perfectly epitomize Ron Woodroof. Ron is not a hero, at least not by any conventional means. He’s both the worst and the best kind of hedonist. Worst because he does every nasty thing you could possibly imagine: hard drugs, unprotected group sex, beer, whiskey, and everything in between. But he’s the best because he does it honestly. So very rarely can somebody be fully themselves when engaging in vices. Oftentimes we pursue these wrong ends because we are running from something, typically ourselves. But Ron? He just wants to party. Ain’t nothing taking him down.

When he wakes up in a hospital and is given 30 days to live by none other than Russell Edgington, Ron Woodroof does exactly what Ron Woodroof would do: he cusses up a storm, declaring over and over again that “he ain’t no queer,” and bursts out of there to go party. Who cares if his “t-cells” are virtually nonexistent!?

As Ron is gradually forced to come to terms with his new life as a victim of HIV/AIDS, he realizes the gravity of his situation. Dying is the last thing he wants to do. His predicament comes at a time in American History when medical treatment of the disease was in the very early stages. AZT, a highly toxic antiviral drug, is being prescribed to controlled “groups” of patients (some are actually given the drug, some are given placebos) in a human drug experiment that takes advantage of the trust of thousands of dying people. Ron manages to bribe a hospital janitor to get him the drug, which he takes at a rate of every other swig of whiskey. Like so many others, the drug does very little to help Ron, and he ends up back in the hospital.

Dying, emaciated, Ron begins a bewildering character arc that leads him into foreign countries to find the best medical treatment there is for his condition. Around every corner, he is being stopped by FDA agents who more than strongly discourage the distribution, let alone use, of “unapproved drugs.” Angry at the injustice he is constantly beset by, Ron founds a “Buyer’s Club” where AIDS-stricken members pay a significant monthly membership to get all of the drugs they might need for free.

The film functions in three separate acts. In the first, a party-animal Ron ignores his disease with cocaine and whiskey. In act two, he displays a startling degree of intellectual curiosity and resourcefulness in seeking out treatment. In the third and final act, it’s all about Ron building up his modest empire and distributing drugs to those in need despite the FDA trying to shut him down at every turn. Through it all, we get a lot of moments from Ron that color his character so well. Everybody is always telling Ron that he’s a low-life but we never believe them, because Ron never believes them either. In so many moments, we are shown how kind, generous, and charming Ron can be, and it’s never done as a means to an end. You might call his journey a character arc, but it’s not really. Not when this was Ron all along, even before he knew he was mortal.

EXCLUSIVE: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto film scenes together for The Dallas Buyers Club in New Orleans.

It’s hard to watch Dallas Buyer’s Club and not think of Christian Bale in The Fighter, where the typically buff Batman slims down to a devastatingly emaciated crack addict and delivers one hell of a performance. When an actor can donate that much of their body to their art, it’s impossible not to respect them for it. Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey are both transformed into shells of their former selves here. Take a look at some pictures from something like Magic Mike and then look at Buyer’s Club. For the longest time, McConaughey was really just a one-note rom-com actor, but in recent years he’s really been revealing some serious depth.

I’d also be remiss in this review if I didn’t at least mention Jennifer Garner, who plays a doctor that takes care of both Ron and Rayon at certain points in the movies. Garner is always a solid addition to any cast, but in this picture she was rather underutilized. Short of one particular scene where she loses her cool, she’s always just sort of taking up space and hitting the same note. There’s at least four scenes of her quietly sipping wine by herself in a drab living room. Ron is immediately flirtatious with her and doesn’t back off at any point in the movie, but she doesn’t exactly return the charm. She warms up to him a bit more by the end but they never really treat into romantic territory. It’s far too easy to just fling your male and female leads together in any given movie. Granted, it makes it easier given that this film is biographically sound, but it was still refreshing to not see the two of them wind up together in the end. Oddly enough, Pacific Rim made the same choice this past summer in keeping its co-stars at arm’s length.

PS. My greatest moment of shame while watching this movie was when Ron says he is “riddled” with AIDS, I burst out laughing because once, I quite randomly saw a skit involving Ricky Gervais and Liam Neeson. Start at about 1:50 for where it starts to get good, and you’ll get it before long.

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