The year is 1985, and Texan electrician Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) sits frozen on a hospital bed, paralyzed for a moment in stubborn disbelief at the life-changing news he's just received: He's not going to live to see 1986. He's not even going to live to see the end of the month, as the calendar on the wall of his trailer reminds him with a sting. He's contracted HIV, and at a time when the virus is so misunderstood and under-researched that odds of surviving the next 30 days are slim.
Forced to confront his own misconceptions about the disease and the prejudices of his so-called “friends”, Ron remarkably manages to turn his darkest hour into the most meaningful seven years of his life, as he uses his considerable wiles to acquire all manner of unapproved but effective treatments to keep himself – along with hundreds of other AIDS patients – alive to fight another day. He founds the Dallas Buyers Club, also the title of this terrific new film that chronicles his true story, so that sufferers can circumvent the FDA's corrupt regulations and receive symptom-relieving drugs directly from Ron's makeshift office/motel room.
However, in a refreshing departure from the usual idealistic heroism of biopics, Ron's actions do not stem from moralistic grandstanding... at least not initially. Rather, he is as repulsed by the homosexual community as his own social circle is by him once they discover his illness. He would be reluctant to share his many vials of pills, proteins and vitamins (smuggled in from Mexico and further abroad) unless he thought he could make a quick buck from it.
Unwilling to fully penetrate (haha) the hottest hot spots of Dallas' gay population to secretly sell his pharmaceuticals, Ron enlists the help of a transgendered person he had met in the hospital named Rayon (Jared Leto). The evolving relationship between them is one of the film's biggest sources of humour and of heart. Leto is droll, charismatic, and finally heartbreaking as our hero's unlikely business partner and even more unlikely friend. Ron also wins over an ally in the form of Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who eventually comes to see as Ron does that the FDA's agenda-pushing is as deadly as the epidemic it's failing to properly combat.
A story this fascinating deserves strong storytelling, and thankfully the storytelling in Dallas Buyers Club is mostly lean and efficient. The screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, though shapeless in structure, rings with righteous hostility at the unfairness of Ron's plight, but never descends into self-importance. The characters are treated with a warmth and wit that is essential to lightening the load of the sobering subject matter. The whole thing is assembled with crisp editing that makes excellent use of montage and helps define a voice for director Jean-Marc Vallée's otherwise invisible (but invaluable) direction.
But as you may have heard, McConaughey is the real story here, delivering a performance that transcends his celebrity status. Unrecognizable both in voice and in the flesh (of which he lost a whole lot to play the gaunt character), he completely disappears inside Ron Woodroof, compelling us to watch an unsavoury man vindicate his entire life on borrowed time. His transition from a homophobic drug profiteer to a devoted champion of a crucial cause is dramatic yet gradually handled. McConaughey makes us genuinely believe that this man – who so repelled us at the beginning – could undergo such a profound change in just seven years. It's a hopeful message that feels especially relevant as the debate on America's medical system rages on.
***1/2 out of ****