If ever there was a film that just may have conceived to mint Oscars, Dallas Buyers Club might be it.
It concerns the exploits of a homophobic cowboy, Ron Woodroof, who contracts AIDS and pairs up with trans woman, Rayon, to begins selling unapproved drugs to the Dallas gay community. While doing so, he ends up overcoming prejudice, including his own, and taking on a corrupt and inadequate system. Best of all? It’s based on a real-life story.
If the number of Academy-friendly buzzwords sounds almost parodic, it makes it all the more impressive that Dallas Buyers Club manages to cope with the weight of expectation upon it. Its not the best film of the year – that prize deservedly went to the unflinching 12 Years a Slave – nor is it exactly a complex issue piece, but it does feature two fantastic, rightfully-awarded performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.
Dallas Buyers Club is essentially a character study. Ron Woodroof begins as a bigoted hedonistic living an empty existence – a man who rips off gamblers for petty cash who the first time we see him is engaged in unprotected sex literally feet from a live rodeo. When he first learns of his diagnosis, his reaction is one of almost visceral denial, threatening to punch out the doctor who dares to tell him he has this “queer” disease.
Soon enough, though, his good-ole-boy friends have turned on him, he’s lost his job and his trailer, and finds himself on death’s door. Given only 30 days to live and without access to an apparently life-saving, privately lethal drug, AZT, Ron nevertheless sees an opportunity: quicker than you can say “There’s a fortune to be made…”, he begins smuggling unapproved prescription drugs up from Mexico. The last thing on his mind is altruism.
Always gutsy and charming, McConaughey finds the depths in Ron’s posturing. Through his own trials and tribulations, his initially hostile interactions with Rayon and a kindly doctor, Eve Saks (played by Jennifer Garner), he changes, in attitude if not in presentation. Ron’s repeated “Fuck you!” becomes instead a defiant rallying cry as he subverts the law in order to provide those around him with life-prolonging medication, despite all attempts of the FDA to stop him.
If the narrative is a simple one – dying cowboy vs. big pharma – its bolstered completely by the little moments. As Rayon, Leto avoids the pitfalls of a role that could otherwise have fallen into the category of “Ron’s sidekick”, managing to steal almost every scene he’s in, no mean feat with McConaughey on screen. If McConaughey is the muscle behind the film, the drive, the focus, then Leto is its witty and vulnerable heart.
Though similar in concept to, say, Philadelphia – for which Tom Hanks won the 1993 Oscar for Best Actor – Dallas Buyers Club is touching and funny and everything you hope it might be. The unlikely duo of Woodroof and Rayon is cute but never cloying – bitchy and bittersweet – and most of the film’s best moments come as a result of it. It’s the story of a battle rather than an outright triumph, but one that is well worth fighting for.