Dallas Buyers Club
Opens Fri., Nov. 8 at Harvard Exit and Lincoln Square. Rated R. 117 minutes.
Making a straight white Texas homophobe the hero of a film about the ’80s AIDS crisis doesn’t seem right. It’s inappropriate, exceptional, possibly even crass. All those qualities are reflected in Matthew McConaughey’s ornery, emaciated portrayal of Ron Woodroof, a rodeo rider and rough liver who contracted HIV in 1985. This urban cowboy became an outlaw pharmacist and activist, written up extensively in the Dallas media, far from the New York and San Fran frontlines.
Fond of strippers, regularly swigging from his pocket flask, doing lines of coke when he can afford them, betting on the bulls he rides, Ron has tons of Texas-sized character. He’s a wiry little hustler with jeans sliding off his bony hips when we meet him; and that alarming cough means something malign lurks within his body. But is there any conscience in there, too?
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée from a script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, the unruly Dallas Buyers Club goes easy on the sinner-to-saint conversion story. McConaughey and the filmmakers know that once Ron gets religion, so to speak, their tale risks tedium. For that reason, the film enjoyably careens along with Ron’s unlikely education. Waking up in the hospital after a collapse, he’s incredulous that he’s got a “faggot” disease. Thirty days to live? He doesn’t believe it. And that “cock-sucker” Rock Hudson (then dying of AIDS)? A waste of Hollywood pussy, Ron scoffs to his friends.
But they’re not his friends for long. Ron’s secret gets out, and he’s shunned at work and in the titty bars. Finally this reckless, uneducated galoot goes to the library and reads up on the AIDS crisis. McConaughey looks up from the microfilm kiosk and—Goddammit, how did he become such a good actor?—his eyes fill with silent dread. It’s true. He knows. And he realizes he’s alone, a pariah to his redneck buddies.
As Ron desperately bribes and steals a path to off-label meds, then drives to Mexico to smuggle them from a sympathetic hippie doctor (good to see you, Griffin Dunne), his allies and adversaries do read like fictional composites. There’s nice Dr. Saks (Jennifer Garner) and her profit-minded, drug-trial-chasing boss (Denis O’Hare), plus a friendly cop (Steve Zahn) and the transvestite who becomes Ron’s right-hand woman in the Dallas Buyers Club (essentially the Costco of AZT alternatives). Jared Leto’s Rayon is even skinnier and certainly slinkier than McConaughey, eyebrows plucked, makeup so Dallas-in-the-’80s, wearing her heels and hemlines with authority. Rayon is also an addict, sicker than Ron, but they’re fellow gamblers who delight in beating the house.
Cheats and liars have all the fun, which is why Dallas Buyers Club gets so much play out of Ron dressing up in various costumes, flying to Japan in a cowboy hat, waving his huge Rolex and huger ’80s cellphone, relishing his chance to be more than trailer trash. He’s really living, even as he’s dying. Dallas Buyers Club is ultimately more a caper movie than an AIDS story. There are better, more accurate films about the latter subject, but those are called documentaries. And a quarter-century past the dawn of the AIDS crisis, with modern drugs now keeping the HIV-positive healthy, Ron is the worst kind of role model and the best kind of rascal that the medical journals need.