Dallas Buyers Club follows a pattern we’ve seen before, breaks no new ground, and could easily be forgotten by year’s end. Fortunately for us, it’s well made and features a terrific central performance by Matthew McConaughey and a transcendent one by Jared Leto. If the subject matter of a man battling the FDA and big pharmacies in the early days of the AIDS epidemic doesn’t exactly hold the same urgency it might have decades ago (as in Philadelphia), its subtext of corporate greed certainly does. We learn through the movie’s hero, Ron Woodruff, that early experimental HIV drugs like AZT were financial boons for pharmacies that had the deep pockets to get quick FDA approval and the avarice to gouge patients too afraid of dying to not pay. AIDS was a new stream of revenue, with real human lives reduced to lines on a profit-and-loss statement.
I called Woodruff a hero, but now that doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe anti-hero is more like it. He’s a homophobic, racist bottom-feeder who’s dependent on drugs, alcohol, women and the occasional illegal bull-riding bet to survive. His daytime job as an electrician is merely a means to fund his self-destruction. Woodruff’s initial reaction to receiving his HIV diagnosis is offense: he’s not gay, and threatens the doctor with physical harm for saying otherwise. Of course, the doctor isn’t saying that, but few people knew different in the mid-1980s, when AIDS was still largely considered a “gay cancer.” Offense quickly turns to fear. Woodruff’s friends start avoiding him. No one wants to touch him. The lock to his trailer has been changed and an eviction notice tacked to the door. Not exactly forward-thinking, but then again, everyone was afraid of AIDS and its associated stigmas in 1986.
Woodruff’s determination to outlive his diagnosis is strong: upon learning he can’t get non-FDA approved AZT, which is about to go to fast-track clinical trial, he moves on to Mexico, where he meets a disgraced physician doing his own research on AIDS: AZT, it turns out, is toxic in its current recommended dosage, and so he prescribes a regimen of vitamins and alternate drugs that seem to have some kind of efficacy. Woodruff agrees to smuggle the drugs across the border, and to avoid technical illegality, sells them as part of a monthly “membership.” Hence, the Dallas Buyers Club.
All of this is standard-issue stuff. Woodruff goes through the traditional movie motions of gaining valuable life insight through experience with something he doesn’t understand — in this case, the LGBT community — and comes out the other side a better person, although it’s not very moving. His encounters with the FDA border on tedious, they occur so often. Just as he gets set up with another pile of medication, the Feds come swooping in to confiscate the stash and lecture him on selling off-label pills from across the border. It’s interesting to note that Woodruff is never in any real danger of arrest until near the end of the film, a knowledge that deflates any attempts at dramatic tension. McConaughey takes what is essentially a stock movie character and transforms him into a hard-riding, rough-hewn cowboy facing down the fact that his unbridled hedonism has led to almost certain death. He’s very good.
But the real find in Dallas Buyers Club is Jared Leto, as Rayon, a man living as a woman who understands HIV and AIDS all too well — not just as a victim, but as a member of the community most ravaged by its effects. Rayon’s stockings are torn up and down, her nails are chipped, and her make-up is always slightly smudged. What she lacks in polish, she makes up for with a direct and unflinching honesty. When she meets Woodruff in a hospital, her playful nature gets a mite too close for him. He’s uncomfortable, but not so much that he doesn’t appreciate her kindness. The two eventually develop a friendship that’s deep and special, and seems to come from an entirely different movie at times. There’s a heartbreaking moment late in the film, as Rayon is forced to beg her bank executive father for a loan to fund the Buyers Club. Understanding the stakes, she arrives at his office not in one of her low-cut dresses and high-heels, but a three-piece suit, her hair pulled back in a pony-tail and her face washed clean of make-up. It’s sad watching her hide who she is, yes, but it’s even sadder when we realize she’s been disowned by her family and effectively operates tough but alone in the world. Leto has flown under the radar for years on television, in independent movies, and as a front man for his band, 30 Seconds to Mars, but here he arrives, fully formed, in a performance of subtle power. If you only have one reason to see Dallas Buyers Club, Leto’s performance should be it.