Life, Death, and All the Rest of the Early AIDS Crisis

Dallas Buyers Club works because it doesn't over-sentimentalize its subject, and for that reason alone, it has quite the emotional impact.

“Ya hear Rock Hudson was a cocksucker?” This phrase is how we’re introduced to Ron Woodruff, and it sums up just about everything you need to know about him.

Ron Woodruff is a guy’s guy: a boozin’, bettin’, all-American rodeo gambler and champion drinker, who also just so happens to possess a rather brilliant mind when he’s not doing coke, contemplating money-making schemes, or indulging in his well-bred casual racism and homophobia. Thus, after an on-the-job accident lands him in the hospital, a routine run of his bloodwork reveals that Ron has a very severe case of HIV, and he has 30 days to live.

He refuses to believe it, but being as Dallas Buyers Club takes place in the ’80s at the height of the AIDS scare, his friends all turn a cold shoulder to him rather immediately, ‘cos back then, if you had AIDS, you were gay. He returns home one night to see the phrase “FAGGOT BLOOD” painted on the side of his trailer home. “Fuck you!” he screams to night sky, no one else around.

Woodruff, a thin rail of a man, refuses to accept that he has 30 days left to live, and after some drug-filled parties with promiscuous women (he has the good conscious at least not to have sex with them), he winds up back in the hospital, and after hearing about the hospital’s trials for a new drug called AZT, he wants in. He’s unable to do so, but along the way befriends a transgender named Rayon, who not only happens to be in the AZT trials, but also has a slew of friends who are similarly diagnosed with the disease and could use help.

He does his research, realizes AZT is more toxic than it is helpful, and a long talk with disgraced former doctor (Griffin Dunne) leads Woodruff to realize there are other cures out there, and the drugs available in Mexico can’t actually cross over to the States as they aren’t FDA approved. Donning a priest’s robe and an elaborate backstory, Woodruff partners with Rayon to create the “Dallas Buyers Club”.

He doesn’t sell drugs to anyone directly, no; he instead sells memberships, each membership entitling the recipient to receive a set amount of the drugs and vitamin injections that Woodruff has acquired, although even as a legal workaround, there still are more than a few hiccups along the way that prevents Woodruff from trying to get the medicine to people who need it (although they still have to pay — Woodruff makes it abundantly clear that he is not a charity).

Dallas Buyers Club is a very logical progression for director Jean-Marc Vallée, whose 2005 film C.R.A.Z.Y. very much touched on familial themes of homophobia, and managed to so with noted style and finesse. After the decently-received 2009 period piece The Young Victoria, Dallas Buyers Club shows that he’s still unafraid to give a good helping of style to a story that could have presented in a very dry tone. Certain images — like Woodruff’s being engulfed by butterflies kept in his disbarred Mexican doctor’s lab — could very well have come out of a horror movie, but here they instead show Woodruff’s gradually expanding worldview. Although he doesn’t have much time for gays or trans folk, he learns to respect them and their plight, one time even attacking a former friend of his in a supermarket after he rejects Woodruff’s introduction to Rayon.

The film’s emotional impact very much lives and dies by its two main characters, Woodruff and Rayon, played with remarkable prowess by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, returning to film after a multi-year absence to focus on his band, 30 Seconds to Mars. While much has been made about their respective shedding of pounds in order to inhabit their roles, such flamboyant gestures mean nothing unless there’s actually meat and intention behind the performances.

For McConaughey, he fits into the role like a glove, his slight twang still very present, but his outright defiance and determination to his circumstances are very much apparent. Only once, during a lonely drive to nowhere shortly after he accepts his diagnosis, does he completely breakdown emotionally. Since that moment, he becomes a machine of self-preservation, and in doing so, gradually begins to see that there are more people to be saved outside of those just named Ron Woodruff.

Although Dallas Buyers Club much falls back on some tropes that are common to the issue-based Oscar-bait drama, the only reason it works is because it doesn’t overplay the melodrama. During a scene near the end of the film where Rayon — who hinders her own recovery with blatant drug use — begins coughing up blood, she lets out a painful cry of “I don’t wanna die!”, refusing a demand to go to the hospital even as she is closer to death than she’s ever been. That guttural cry is hard to swallow, but Vallée doesn’t over-sentimentalize the moment, using music more for montages and transition shots than he does during scenes themselves, only occasionally falling back on a sharp ringing sound to land a particular point. Had the swelling strings emerged at any point, the film’s impact would’ve been rendered inert.

Its greatest casualty falls to Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks, wherein a brilliant actress gets stuck in a thankless role. Although she plays Saks as a quiet woman who is determined to do the right thing, the only time we ever see any injections of personality outside of a simple character archetype is when she’s shouting or screaming profanities, as we’re shocked by such a big sound coming out of such a quiet-spoken character. For personality, though, that’s it, and even her emotional climax, tearfully hammering a wall just because she can’t express her frustration in any other way, falls remarkably flat.

Let’s give a shoutout to Steve Zahn as Woodruff’s friend Tucker, who brings a nuanced turn to a sparse but difficult role, playing an everyman who doesn’t understand everything. The emotional conflict he brings into a part that is admittedly less “showy” than the headliners’, but his perfromance deserves kudos.

Perhaps most surprising about the DVD/Blu-Ray release of Dallas Buyers Club, however, is just how painfully sparse the special features are. There are three deleted scenes (one, where Rayon comes to Saks’ home just as Woodruff is visiting, is the only thing of consequence here), and a very stupid, very self-serving “Behind the Scenes” look at the film, which amounts to nothing more than an extended trailer interspersed with a few actor interviews. Director’s commentary? More about the real-life story it’s based off of? Anything about the performances of the leads? Nope.

Dallas Buyers Club tells an important story of those who lived amidst the terrifying AIDS crisis. This was a time when every day brought more information about something people were only beginning to understand. Some people followed doctor’s orders, and some people took their lives into their own hands — sometimes, in a spectacular fashion.

RATING 7 / 10
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