MRR Review: "Dallas Buyers Club"

Photo Credit: Focus Features

MRR Review: "Dallas Buyers Club"

Rating: R (pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity, and drug use)
Length: 117 minutes
Release Date: November 1, 2013
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee
Genre: Drama

Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a hard-drinking, coke-bingeing waif of a man who looks like death warmed over. He somehow manages to show up to work each day, but soon finds himself out of work because of an accident on the job, landing Woodruff in the hospital. While going through a battery of tests, his primary physician (Denis O'Hare) gets test results that shock everyone, especially Woodruff himself—he has AIDS. This diagnosis changes the entire trajectory of Woodruff's life. "Dallas Buyer's Club" is the true story of Woodruff's battle against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and pharmaceutical companies.

His partying has taken a toll on his overall health, and Woodruff is given just weeks to live. In fact, research doctor Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) believes that he probably has a month at best. She offers to put Woodruff into a new study for an experimental drug called AZT that is just starting, even though she thinks he is too sick for it to have any real value. He agrees, and then finds a way to ensure he doesn't get the placebo, which would surely mean death. After staying on the drugs for a few weeks, he finds that they don't work, and he begins to get desperate. Sure, he has wasted his life up until now, but he realizes that he wants to live.

He does some research and realizes that AZT may not be as effective as first thought. There are other drugs that are mired in paperwork at the FDA, but they may prove to be lifesaving. He fights the drug companies and the FDA to no effect, so he decides to take the law into his own hands. Together with Rayon (Jared Leto), he sets up a drug-smuggling ring that allows him access to the unapproved drugs, which seem to have a positive effect on him and other AIDS patients. He may be a homophobe, but he finds a way to work with the transsexual Rayon and potentially save the lives of many of the gay men he used to fear.

With today's movies unapologetically moving toward the future via computer-generated effects and digital film, any movie set in the 1980s that doesn't use a lot of special effects usually seems dated. "Dallas Buyers Club" doesn't suffer in that way at all because director Jean-Marc Vallee is careful to stretch the relatively small budget enough to make everything look authentic. Anyone over the age of thirty will probably recognize at least some of the fashion and pop music that plays in the background during many of the scenes. It feels like a trip down memory lane in some ways, although this trip also has a lot of the confusion, fear, and bigotry that marked how AIDS patients were unfortunately treated in the '80s. This is about as warts-and-all as a production about this time in history can get, and it makes the movie all the more believable as a result. The thought of a homophobic, slurring bigot becoming the hero of gay men might seem very unlikely, but as told here, it is a tale that feels real.

Films like this that are dramatic and quite obviously frontrunners for awards usually have some sort of soaring score to accompany them, but this is another area where Vallee doesn't go the usual route. Instead, he uses the hits of the day to really make the film feel of its time. Most of these hits are heard in car or bar scenes, where Woodruff is either debauching himself while listening to a jukebox or simply driving from place to place while listening to the radio. The fact that music is only heard as the characters hear it is a bit odd, but it really works. In fact, every risk that Vallee took to make "Dallas Buyers Club" works, which is why he will probably be on the short list of Best Director nominees once awards season begins in earnest.

Perhaps the biggest risk that Vallee took was casting McConaughey as the lead, because it goes against type in so many ways. The proud Texan has made a career out of playing leading men in romantic comedies, so his recent turn to high drama is a lovely surprise. What's even lovelier is that he seems to have pulled off every one of these high-minded characters he has recently portrayed. This is no truer than it is in "Dallas Buyers Club," for which he lost nearly thirty pounds off his already trim frame. He looks emaciated from the start, as if a swift wind might blow him over. It's a complete transformation that should earn him some very well-deserved and perhaps overdue awards-season love.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5