Dallas Buyers Club


Redneck vs. AIDS

Main Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee

The abject terror that the AIDS epidemic struck in the hearts of Americans is all but a forgotten memory here in the new millennium.  But from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, anyone with even the remotest chance of having the virus was looked upon with a potent mixture of fear, disgust and pity.  The result was thousands upon thousands of people dying alone, abandoned by family and friends, while the medical community scrambled to try and get even the slightest handle on the mysterious disease.  Dallas Buyers Club manages to bring that ugly, scary and in some senses remarkable time period to life.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a redneck Texan and a voracious heterosexual.  Really voracious.  When he is diagnosed with HIV – and AIDS, he has a T-Cell count of 9 rather than the normal 1500 – he doesn’t believe it.  He isn’t gay.  He knows little else about the illness.  When his friends find out, they shun him out of homophobia, ignorance and fear.  He does the very last thing you would expect from an uneducated, bigoted, frightened man – he goes to work to beat the disease.

Jared Leto by nicolas genin

Jared Leto in 2009

The movie takes us on Ron’s journey through the mainstream medical system and then to the outliers – those using experimental treatments not FDA approved for use in the US.  His initial prognosis was death in 30 days, but as he says, nothing kills Ron Woodroof in 30 days.  He fights with every determined bone you never expected him to have.  AIDS changes Ron Woodroof, and all the people he encounters along the way.

By far the most outstanding aspect of this film is the acting.  McConaughey lost 47 pounds to play the ailing Woodroof and it shows in every grimace, awkward movement and skeletal shadow.  Ron still sees himself as the handsome man of his healthier days and it shows – he has a swagger that even a terminal illness can’t completely erase.  His health waxes and wanes throughout the film and each upswing and setback are made absolutely evident by McConaughey.  He has found a real niche with parts that don’t depend on his leading man looks.

Jennifer Garner by GabboT

Jennifer Garner at the Dallas Buyers Club premiere

Supporting McConaughey’s main character is an incredible performance by Jared Leto, playing the transvestite Rayon who goes into business with Woodroof as they search for any treatment options to extend or improve their lives.  Leto also lost an enormous amount of weight, but the brilliance of this performance is more than just a physical transformation.  As Rayon, Leto is physically fragile and fatally flawed.  But he also has an amazing level of self-acceptance that allows him to take the insults of the homophobic Woodroof in stride as it allows him to reach out for happiness in this most bleak of situations.  These two characters are pitch perfect counterparts – two vastly different faces of AIDS.  Both McConaughey and Leto deservedly took home Oscars for their performances in Dallas Buyers Club.

Other supporting cast members worth mention include Dennis O’Hare as the face of the medical establishment and Jennifer Garner as the more compassionate, less traditional doctor willing to question relying on usual methodology under such fatally unusual circumstances.

Matthew McConaughey by GabboT

Matthew McConaughey looking healthy at the Dallas Buyer Club premiere.

The film as a whole actually comes together beautifully – the story is based on real people and very convincingly portrays how frightening this disease was at the time.  Not just to those suffering its debilitating effects, but those treating them, those who loved them and those who were deathly afraid of them.  This didn’t happen so long ago that we should have forgotten, but as a culture driving forward ever faster, we do forget.  We forget what the world was like for gay men who bore the brunt of blame for the epidemic, we forget the fear of touching someone with the virus, we forget the speed with which it took lives and the devastation it wrought on entire communities.  Dallas Buyers Club very effectively brings it all back.  It isn’t pleasant, but it’s important to remember the scourge of AIDS before the current antiviral cocktails brought some control to the death toll and spread of the disease in the US.  I suspect that if Ron Woodroof hadn’t been such an asshole, the movie would have had a better shot at the Best Picture Oscar.  But he was an asshole, and that fact doesn’t change what he achieved.  It was right to portray him for who he was at the time.  It’s also important to realize that the AIDS epidemic rages on in other parts of the world, and that the faces of Rayon and Ron are mirrored all over Africa.

Overall, Dallas Buyers Club is an extremely effective period drama bringing back the horror of the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  Bolstered by fantastic performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, the film becomes much more than just a dry memoir of a nasty man during an ugly, deadly time.  It isn’t going to brighten your day, but the film is more than worth seeing.  4 ½ solid stars out of 5 for Dallas Buyers Club and a recommendation for pretty much everyone.

photos by nicolas genin and GabboT

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