In 1985 Dallas, electrician and hustler Ron Woodroof works around the system to help AIDS patients get the medication they need after he is himself diagnosed with the disease.
A few years ago it would have been hard to imagine the pairing of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in such a sobering film as Dallas Buyers Club being anything other than a disaster. Over the past year however, McConaughey in particular has done a lot to fix his reputation as something of a joke. Dallas Buyers Club, though flawed, is the culmination of all that work, and maybe the gateway to better things for both him and Leto.
What is impressive about Dallas Buyers Club is that it never shies away from the truth. It is an honest portrayal of a real man. As such it never tries to clean up the central character. Ron Woodruff (McConaughey) is a homophobe and a racist, although not without his own unique charm. Throughout the film his outlook certainly improves, but he is hardly a saint by the end of precedings. This helps lend a sense of authenticity to the film that is integral to the telling of a true story like this. Though Woodruff may not be particularly likeable, he is believable as a human.
McConaughey’s performance does a lot to help the believability of Woodruff as well. It is in more than the incredible physical transformation that he undertook (enough about which has already been said). Though McConaughey does very little to move away from the southern boy role he has played for the majority of his career, he does lend a lot of emotional weight to a character who, for the most part, prefers to hide it behind bravado. There has been Oscar buzz around his performance for the past few months, but in such a tough year he is rather outclassed. In lesser years he would no doubt have been top of the pack.
Someone who is more likely to be reading out an acceptance speech at this years oscars is Jared Leto, who is near unrecognizable as Woodruff’s transvestite sidekick Rayon. Again, the physical transformation is staggering, yet Leto’s performance is really found in the smallest of affectations. The way these two characters and performers play off of each other makes every scene they appear in together fascinating to watch. Though Woodruff would never let it be too obvious, there is a lot of intimacy in these scenes. So much so that these often turn out to be the highlights of the film.
Other than the performances, Dallas Buyers Club is a buy-the-numbers telling of a true story. In trying to tell the full story, the film lacks a strong trajectory. Their are a lot of different issues raised here, homophobia, the HIV epidemic, and a very simple take on the story of pharmaceutical companies vs. the little man. It is certainly a very interesting and inspiring story, but the truth is that by the final act Woodruff has achieved all he is going to achieve. The result is that the film rather peters out in the final quarter. In the pursuit of telling the full story the film lacks any kind of strong conclusion, thereby losing half the battle.
Dallas Buyers Club is an admirable achievement. Mostly for risk taken on two rather unproven actors. Both delivered, the film being worth seeing for their performances alone. While the film does sag at times when it seems it doesn’t know where to go, there is enough intrigue in this being a true story to keep audiences fixated throughout. Where McConaughey and Leto go from here is up to them, but from now on their presence on a cast list may bring hope rather than skepticism.