In director Jean-Marc Vallee’s Best Picture nominated film “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013), Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is portrayed as a hell-raising, hard-drinking, cocaine-using, homophobic living in Dallas in the mid 1980’s. That is until he discovers that he has become diagnosed with HIV (which quickly becomes a diagnoses of AIDS), and his doctors (Denis O’Hara and Jennifer Garner) give him 30 days to live. Ron immediately finds a way to obtain an experimental drug (AZT), but his body continues to deteriorate over the next month due to the drug’s side effects that are attacking his body, which is also heightened by his cocaine use.
Ron heads to Mexico where he meets a former American doctor stripped of his license (an unrecognizable Griffin Dunne). He sets Ron up with some ddC and peptide T, which is a protein, and though not approved by the FDA can still be brought into the United States for personal use. After three months of treatment, Ron sees the potential for the distribution of these medications and begins his own “business” back in Dallas.
In order to help find potential buyers, Ron teams up with a transgender woman named Rayon (Jared Leto). Although it is hard for Ron to spend time with homosexual people, he begins to change his outlook, especially after many of his own friends ostracize him after believing him to be a homosexual as well. Together, Ron and Rayon prove to be a formidable team and gain quite an extensive clinic list. In order to stay out of trouble with the authorities, they institute the Dallas Buyers Club, where instead of selling drugs to their clients, they sell “memberships” that include access to all medications- until, that is, the FDA sets out to shut down both the Dallas Buyers Club, and Ron Woodroof himself.
Remember years back when Matthew McConaughey was appearing in countless romantic comedies with little or no plot and adventure movies that seem about as realistic as a cartoon? Those days are long over. After taking all of 2010 off, McConaughey surprised everyone with a series of roles that challenged him and his abilities in a variety of ways. “Bernie” (2011), “Killer Joe” (2012), “The Paper Boy” (2012), and “Magic Mike” (2012) all showed new range and depth for him, and even had us talking about a possible Academy Award nomination for “Magic Mike”. If 2012 made us sit up and take notice of him, 2013 was like getting a slap in the face. “Dallas Buyers Club” is easily the highest point of his career, that seems to only be heading up from here. (Although I enjoyed him quite a bit in “Mud” as well.) His performance is both physically and mentally exhausting to watch, and one can only imagine how intense it must have been to undertake.
Likewise, Jared Leto goes through an enormous undertaking here to transform himself into Rayon. His performance seems more subtle in comparison to that of McConaughey (probably because everyone can easily recognize McConaughey and understand how much he physically changed), but thankfully Leto is still getting the attention (and the awards) that he deserves.
Unlike many other acting focused films, “Dallas Buyers Club” benefits from a delicate yet successful team of professionals, who have crafted not only an engrossing story, but also an entertaining one. The direction by Jean-Marc Vallee is effective, but is smart enough to stay out-of-the-way of the actors. The screenplay (written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) runs smoothly and patiently, and it is enhanced even further by wonderful editing (Martin Pensa & John Mac McMurphy) that compliments every other aspect of this production. Usually when there is a film that is so focused or reliant on the performances, the other aspects of the film seem to be ignored, but “Dallas Buyers Club” is not just a great acting movie- it’s a great all-around movie.
It has been 20 years since Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” (1993) hit theaters and earned numerous accolades as a pioneering film centered around AIDS and the devastating effects of the disease. Tom Hanks earned his first Academy Award for his performance, and it won’t surprise me (or anyone else I assume) if both McConaughey and Leto follow in his footsteps. It is interesting to think that with the way the Academy Awards has changed to include up to 10 Best Picture nominees, a film like “Dallas Buyers Club” can earn a Best Picture nomination- continuing to gain more viewers. If the same system was in place in 1993, perhaps “Philadelphia” could have achieved that same honor.