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Dallas Buyers Club (A Movie Review)

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

Dallas Buyers Club


Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne, Dallas Roberts, Denis O'Hare, Michael O'Neill, Kevin Rankin, Bradford Cox, James DuMont, Jane McNeill, Adam Dunn, Stephanie Grote and James DuMont.

Screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.

Distributed by Focus Features. 117 minutes. Rated R.

Once upon a time, early on in his career, Matthew McConaughey was a respected actor. When he first broke out in the 90s with diverse roles in movies like Dazed & Confused, A Time to Kill and Lone Star, the sky seemed to be the limit for this young talent.

Fast forward a little more than a decade and McConaughey has smashed that promise to pieces on the rocks of a decade of almost non-stop bad choices. Well at least artistically, as so often happens in Hollywood, the more he sold out the bigger a star he became. Still, looking back at the wreckage of awful romantic comedies (way too many to list), cheesy inspirational dramas (such as We Are Marshall, Two For the Money and U-571) and the occasional bad vanity project (Surfer, Dude and Tropic Thunder), McConaughey's reputation was in tatters.

A few years ago, McConaughey made a surprising decision – particularly surprising for an actor who has shown no particular taste in projects, nor hesitation to put the money above the project. McConaughey finally realized that he was rich enough and he could romance Kate Hudson or Jennifer Garner in his sleep (which he usually did), so he was going to resurrect his career artistically, even if it meant taking smaller paychecks in quirkier, independent-minded films.

The first taste we got of the new McConaughey was in the supporting role of a hard-headed Sheriff in Richard Linklater's black comedy Bernie. Since then he has shown his sincerity in his new career strategy with the likes of Mud, The Paperboy, the upcoming HBO series True Detective and this film. Even when he takes a Hollywood blockbuster role, like the aging stripper in Magic Mike or an upcoming part in The Wolf of Wall Street, it's a supporting gig in a smart, intriguing piece of Hollywood product.

The opening of Dallas Buyers Club almost feels like a backslide to bad era McConaughey: Rodeo bull rider Matt dispassionately experiencing a threesome with two gorgeous, willing fans in a horse stall.

However, this is not a take on Matthew McConaughey the carefree lover man, Dallas Buyers Club has a much more serious and darker agenda.

Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodruff, a bigoted redneck loser with addictions to drugs and sex who finds out in the mid-80s that he is HIV-positive. The doctor told him that he probably had 30 days to live.

This was in the early days of AIDS, in which a lot of fear and ignorance abounded, the strongest being that it was a "gay disease." The ferociously homophobic Woodruff at first refuses to believe that he has the disease at all, and the film never quite tells whether he contracted it in one of his many meaningless flings with women or, as a very quick flashback suggests, that he may have gotten really drunk once and did a little experimenting with bisexuality.

However, once he finally does come to terms with his illness, Woodruff starts studying the condition voraciously. He becomes willing to lie, cheat or steal to get his hands on all of the latest advancements in the medical studies on AIDS, whether it is approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) or not. (In fact, the FDA come out as the big-time heavies in this film, perhaps justifiably.)

As Ron learns more and more about the disease, he and a fellow stricken transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto) team up to create a business out of getting alternative medical options to the other Dallas residents who are suffering from the disease. With the help of a beautiful-but-platonic doctor (Jennifer Garner), they do their own studies and find mostly natural alternatives which seem to be helping people much more than the accepted drug, AZT. Through his work, he gets to know and understand the gay community and works hard to spread AIDS awareness.

And yet, as much as suffering from the disease does make Ron a better, more compassionate man, it is a nice touch the he starts out as a complete out-of-control asshole and he never completely grows out of the old Ron. He's still the same crass, in your face, self-important, shifty guy he ever was, he is just putting it to better use.

McConaughey apparently went all out for this role. In fact, he supposedly lost 50 pounds and his gaunt face and scarecrow body make him quite believable as an AIDS sufferer. For the most part it is a fine performance, even if he does occasionally fall into over-the-top McConaughey-isms. Still, it is a brave and impressive performance, and quite likely will be remembered around Oscar time.

Ironically, despite Woodruff's chaste (by necessity) relationship with Garner's compassionate doc, it is Leto's drug-addicted trust-fund tranny who becomes Woodruff's most vital connection. From the reflexive disgust that Woodruff feels upon their first meeting to his eventual grudging respect and friendship for the tart-tongued queen, McConaughey and Leto's scenes pack the most punch in the film. Rayon opens Ron's eyes to find compassion for the whole spectrum of people in the world, even if Ron's inner redneck fights the transformation. (Well into the film and after they have become close, Ron still refers to his partner to a co-worker by saying, "Where's the idiot?")

In some ways, like Woodruff himself, Dallas Buyers Club tries to have it both ways – mixing hard-edged venom with feel-good platitudes. Still, despite the fact that the movie periodically gets a tiny bit schmaltzy for its own good, it is a brave and interesting and well-made film.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2013 All rights reserved. Posted: October 25, 2013.

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