I have a slight allergy to movies like Dallas Buyers Club, perfectly calibrated as they are to garner awards season attention with their stories centered on crusading do-gooders played by actors giving big, showy performances. The very thought of watching something like Erin Brockovich causes my skin to itch. Seeing The Blind Side was a squirm-inducing experience.
It’s not that all such movies are bad. (I’d put the well done Milk in the same genre.) It’s that they seem to arrive with the expectation that if you don’t like them then you’re denying the virtue of the cause being celebrated.
All of which is a prelude to saying that Dallas Buyers Club is a perfectly serviceable based-on-true-events film that would like to be considered something so much more. It wants to be important.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a hard-living, bull-riding Dallas man who contracts HIV during the 1980s, when a diagnosis with the disease was akin to an immediate death sentence. He’s told he has only about a month to live. At first he lashes out at anger at his doctors, insulted by their implication that he’s engaged in homosexual activity and refusing to believe he’s in need of treatment.
But his illness soon makes his fondness for alcohol and cocaine and sex untenable, and he seeks help from Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). Unfortunately she can’t get him into the trial of the experimental AIDS drug under way at her hospital, and so he crosses the border into Mexico looking for what’s not freely available in the United States.
Soon he’s smuggling in a variety of unapproved drugs and dietary supplements from around the world, both for his own use and to sell to others who are HIV positive. He teams up with transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto) to get his products to the city’s gay community, which has been ravaged by the virus. In the process he learns to shed his homophobic attitudes, becomes a better person, and runs afoul of the FDA and corporate interests that put dollars ahead of patients.
McConaughey deserves praise for his all-in performance as Woodroof, even if the character is yet another variation on the good-old-boy persona he’s made a career of playing. Leto is even better. In women’s clothes, wigs, and makeup, he disappears into the part and makes for a convincing would-be female.
The story doesn’t shy away from the ugly attitudes of Woodroof and his friends towards homosexuals, nor Woodroof’s early selfishness in looking to profit from others afflicted by the disease. But, as with other films of its irritating type, the character’s arc is too predictable and the story’s resolution too tidily reached. I also found it humorous how the same FDA agent seemed to be wandering the country obsessed with foiling the Dallas Buyers Club scheme. In the end, it’s not all that clear what it is Woodroof can claim to have accomplished, besides far outliving his initial prognosis.
Though I’m forgetting, of course, that in 1985 that was a major victory worth celebrating.