[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Dallas Buyers Club opens today in limited release.]
In the early 1990s America was finally beginning to understand the AIDS epidemic, and realizing it affected more than homosexuals. Films such as Philadelphia and plays such as Angels in America began dealing with the subject manner in a serious, upright, careful manner. AIDS was physically devastating, the human cost was visible, and this art could make the pain tangible but had to so with a delicate touch. The stakes were too high and the American public’s understanding was too fragile. But the people who helped combat HIV, the people in the trenches, were rebels. They didn’t fit into the neat, clean box mainstream culture was hoping to present. But now that AIDS has become manageable, the rebels are getting their due, and Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club celebrates the charming, irritating, uncouth Ron Woodroof through a narrative that occasionally punches with kid gloves, but always lands a hit thanks to the stellar performances from stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.
Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is a heterosexual, sexually active, and hard-partying hick in 1980s Dallas, Texas. When an accident at work lands him in the hospital, the doctors tell him a blood test has revealed he has AIDS and probably 30 days to live. With two middle fingers raised and a hearty “fuck you”, Ron defiantly goes out to find a way to survive. His search eventually leads him to Mexico where he learns about drugs that can help him and others HIV-positive patients, but those drugs are unapproved by the FDA. Ron smuggles the drugs in, and in order to circumvent the law and make a tidy profit, he begins a buyers club, which sells memberships instead of the drugs directly. Ron’s business also receives help from Rayon (Leto), a homosexual transvestite who has ties to the gay community.
As Dallas Buyers Club and last year’s terrific documentary How to Survive a Plague show, AIDS victims had to fight tooth and nail for the drugs that could save their lives. They not only had to combat the public’s prejudice against homosexuals, but they also had to struggle against big pharmaceutical companies trying to push a shoddy product rather than save lives. The good, clean fight was never an option, and Dallas Buyers Club pays tribute to Ron and Rayon not by presenting some picture of pure nobility, but showing them warts and all.
Ron is a scoundrel and a bastard. The movie does move him through predictable character development paces of being a better, more understanding person by finding a purpose in acquiring the life-saving drugs and working with Rayon. However, it never softens his behavior in a fundamental way. When a young man comes to him with not enough money for the monthly club fee, Ron tells him it isn’t a charity. When a homosexual thanks Ron for the drugs, Ron curtly responds with “Fuck off.” Ron is an outlaw, and that comes with all the rough edges and swagger that description implies.
McConaughey is magnificent, and it’s not a matter of how much weight he lost to play the role. The cocksure performance we’ve come expect from McConaughey is on display, but with Ron, it’s not something done to charm the audience. It’s a way for the character to hold on to who he is, and not be defined by his disease. Even if he can’t keep having sex, he doesn’t have to stop acting like a ladies’ man. If he’s going to be a “survivor”, he’s not going to be someone who simply endures. Ron is the man who will get inside the ring and knock your teeth out because that’s who he’s always been. His death sentence simply gave him something worthwhile to fight for. McConaughey perfectly captures the character’s attempt to hide the vulnerability and fear that comes with the AIDS diagnosis. Once again, McConaughey has taken his familiar persona and repositioned it into something surprising and wonderful.
And yet it would lose some of its power without Leto. Rayon is the counterbalance not only to Ron’s personality, but also to the film’s themes. Without Rayon, Dallas Buyers Club loses its shading and starts bumping up against the cynical thought of, “Gosh! AIDS is the best thing that ever happened to this guy!” Instead, Ron becomes a better person because of Rayon, but not vice-versa. Rayon shows that getting a new lease on life doesn’t mean that life will become better. Leto is astounding not only by showing both the pain and joy in his complex character, but in his chemistry with McConaughey. The actors need each other, and so do their characters. It’s a true partnership, and one that carries the same rebellious attitude of these two outsiders.
The strength of Rayon and Ron’s relationship doesn’t leave much room for Ron’s doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). She gives Ron the opportunity to strut and flirt, but her primary purpose is to remind us of medical ethics and how “the system” is corrupt and ill equipped to actually help people like Ron and Rayon. The problem is that we know the system is broken because otherwise Ron and Rayon wouldn’t have to create and run the buyers club in the first place. Garner is fine, but her character’s presence is a distraction from the core relationship that gives the movie its definition and tone.
The term “survivor” is tossed around a lot for people who are stricken with terrible, possibly fatal illnesses, and it carries a tone of pity. They survive in relation to the illness that defines them. They lose their identity and become a “disease survivor”. Vallée’s film showcases two men who fought to be more than a statistic or a pity case. AIDS didn’t define them. They defined AIDS. They defined it as something that could be combated; as something whose victims didn’t need to live in fear; as something that can bring out the best in people but not eradicate the flaws. Dallas Buyers Club respects those flaws, and provides a finer, more powerful tribute than America could muster twenty years ago.