Of the many indelible images you see watching Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club – including a rodeo stall threesome and the interrogation of a fake padre- none better captures him than a roadside pit stop near the Mexi-American border. Played by a frighteningly gaunt Matthew McConaughey, who’s sporting a band of lip hair that’s literally hairsbreadths from entering pornstache territory, Ron pauses for a leak before attempting to do something very stupid, all while leashed to an IV bag and stroller that make him look like one seriously lost hospital patient. With vital fluids pumping into him, and less vital ones pumping out, Ron is in his nature state. More liver than man, he’s a 130-pound filter that absorbs all the pleasures of life, only to spit out the poisons they might bring.
We first meet Ron as an alcoholic, coke-snorting, homophobic lout, one well on the way to killing himself with an overdose or cirrhosis. The addictions endangering him are seen as nothing beyond reproach for the lifestyle he has chosen. A would-be rodeo star, Woodroof is used to living life eight seconds at a time, consequences be damned. Ron’s need to welch on bets and always stay one step ahead of sobriety could be seen as pitiable, but there’s a sense of contentedness that comes with his daily grind to get one over on life, as he and other aging stunt performers pursue every vice meant to get the most out of it. Set in 1985, Dallas Buyers Club evokes the associated excess and privilege that defines the decade, even when confining itself to the squalor of Ron’s trailer trash surroundings for the first act.
It’s also a period in which the proliferation of HIV caused AIDS to be a headline-making disease. HIV grew to notoriety through reckless drug use and unprotected sex, two of the best road markers for an unsustainable lifestyle nowadays, but the lion’s share of blame for the AIDS panic was directed at the gay community. Introduced as a hateful banner-bearer for traditional masculinity (despite the mustache), Ron’s sudden HIV diagnosis, and the 30-day timer it puts on the rest of his lifespan, might initially seem like a form of ironic punishment. The smartest thing Dallas Buyers Club does however is present the disease, and desire as unifying human experiences: Ron contracting HIV from a hedonistic lifestyle doesn’t make him different or special, but his reaction to doing so does – or did, in the case of the real Ron Woodroof upon whom the film is based.
Granted, if there’s any actor out there deserving of a “bad boy makes good” story, it’s Matthew McConaughey. An easy, shirtless industry punchline for so long, the recent McRenaissance of the last two years has given us a half-dozen memorable performances to make up for much of the romcom era of his career. McConaughey’s work as Ron Woodroof might be his most notable yet, allowing him to play across a full emotional spectrum as Ron’s story bounces from highs to lows of all sorts. McConaughey is in full-blown Oscar mode here (as is a lot of the rest of the film), providing the rough and rakish heart for a story of personal and social change that required him to lose Christian Bale-ian amounts of weight for the role.
Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t do much to flatter its star or hero, at least not at the outset. Despite wickedly charming moments like a session of prayer by stripper pole candlelight, Ron only becomes sympathetic after handling the early days of his diagnosis with expected ignorance and self-destruction. The truth of his unshakeable cough and constantly ringing ears makes itself known after not too long though, leaving Ron less than a month to mature from denying his condition to accepting it. McConaughey the smarmy pretty boy never crosses your mind when seeing Ron – who looks like he would snap in half doing a sit-up even before catching the bug – reduced to tearfully practicing a death rattle alone in his car, emitting a moan that’s half banshee’s wail, half bathroom hand dryer.
Where Dallas Buyers Club actually finds its plot is in moving Ron through the world of developing HIV treatment, where FDA-approved pills and alternative medicine alike create a volatile market of high demand and controlled supply. On legal technicalities and loopholes, Ron establishes a quasi-legitimate business selling AIDS medication, but having lived his life far removed from the virus, he begrudgingly partners with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman who is already familiar with the underground drug market well before setting up shop in it. Even more so than McConaughey, Leto disappears into the role, which helps to sell a big performance that depends on the actorly vanity of the character, instead of the actor.
Survival and prosperity are presented as the greatest force for social progress as might ever realistically exist. Ron is seen at once making a huge gesture by sharing an embrace with Rayon, while also gripping a giant stack of cash at the same time. The way Dallas Buyers Club sees it, providing a service that would otherwise not be available for those in need of aid becomes besides the point when it can mean having your own slice of the American Dream. The respect earned by Ron’s rat-like tenacity lets him form a relationship with the doctor who first diagnosed him, Eve (Jennifer Garner), who sits on the board of the pharmaceutical company fast-tracking to market a promising (and profitable) treatment that’s not been thoroughly tested.
While it ambitiously tries to add on a tale of David vs. Big Pharma Goliath to its story of personal redemption, Dallas Buyers Club bites off a bit more than it has time to chew by two-fisting both narratives. There’s a certain amount of distrust and suspicion earned when addressing the high cost and profit margins that come with American medical treatment, so the film is nothing if not timely. The problem is that Dallas Buyers Club never dimensionalizes the industrial side of medical treatment as anything more than a cabal of avaricious bogeymen, who push the dangerous, but FDA-approved treatment AZT on the weak and gullible. A lazy post-script explaining that early failures of AZT were due to incorrect dosages makes for a half-baked apology for the rest of the film, which only ever flirts with the complexity that occurs when public demand and market realities undercut efforts to develop safe, life-saving medicine.
Dallas Buyers Club has to forcibly wedge in something resembling a happy ending to the Erin Brokovich-style larger story it sets to telling, but as a shitkicking character study that doubles as a social studies lesson on the de-stigmatization of AIDS, there’s much more to recommend. It’s a handsomely acted, colourful little nugget of history that’s general familiarity won’t bother you anytime McConaughey’s wild and warm performance is on screen.
Tight as it might now be, Matthew McConaughey's belt is deserving of another notch thanks to the winning, but safe Dallas Buyers Club.