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Film Review – Dallas Buyers Club

4 min read

Back in 1985, AIDS was causing widespread fear and panic, and much of it was directed at the gay community.  The Food and Drug Administration under the Reagan administration was a slow-moving, bureaucratic nightmare and AIDS was not at the top of the list. Ron Woodruff, a hard-working, hard-partying, part-time bronco-riding electrician from Texas was given a shock diagnosis of AIDS and given only 30 days to live. After reluctantly coming to terms with his diagnosis, he began a desperate attempt to get the only available medication, AZT, but found himself up against a brick wall and it nearly impossible to obtain the still unapproved drug.  This led him to create the Dallas Buyer’s Club, a fee-based membership program that allowed him to source unapproved medications from all over the world so that he and other AIDS patients could get access to treatments that were unapproved, yet showed promising results.

In Dallas Buyers Club, which is inspired by a true story, Ron (Matthew McConaughey) is initially portrayed as a racist and homophobe until he forms a friendship with a transsexual, Rayon (Jared Leto) who he met in the hospital.  Some creative license was obviously used, as the true nature of Ron’s sexuality and racism is disputed.  Many people who knew him say he was not a homophobe at all, and in fact openly bisexual. But in the film, through the unlikely friendship and business partnership he forms with drug-addicted Rayon, he eventually overcomes his homophobia and helps the gay community by providing access to the medication. Of course his unorthodox methods and circumvention of the system make him a target of the FDA, and they come at him from every angle and attempt to shut him down.

Dallas Buyers Club

The most obvious aspect of Dallas Buyers Club is the physical transformation of the main actors, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, who both lost a substantial amount of weight to play the parts of men dying with AIDS, and in Leto’s case, also a transsexual drug addict. It is believed McConaughey lost an astonishing 47 pounds for the role, and his appearance is so gaunt it is no stretch at all to believe his character is suffering from AIDS. A physical transformation is one thing, but it has to be married with a great emotional performance to be truly outstanding, which it is. Both actors are phenomenal, though it did seem like Jared Leto was not quite as comfortable in his transsexual role as Matthew McConaughey is in the role of whiskey-swilling roughneck.  It is understandable, given that Matthew is actually a Texan and probably has a much stronger frame of reference to draw from. Leto’s performance is very brave, and I felt he was able to successfully capture Rayon’s vulnerabilities and insecurities, but McConaughey obviously has the meatier role and what he gives is Oscar-worthy for sure. He is simply amazing, and it makes the film what it is.

Dallas Buyers Club was made on a shoestring budget, but director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) does a decent job of re-creating the 80’s period. Interestingly, the film is not shot on location in Dallas, but rather New Orleans.  For most viewers it won’t be noticeable, but since I have a strong connection to Dallas I felt like something was just slightly off as the locations being referenced didn’t quite match up with what I thought they should look like, though they are close. I’m sure there are good reasons for the choice of location, and in the end I think the film is successful in capturing the look and feel of 1980’s Texas.

Dallas Buyers Club is at times very emotionally gritty, but I felt that the director handled some key scenes a little too hastily, and as a result failed to reach the dramatic and emotional peaks I thought the scenes deserved.  One thing I did like about the film is that it doesn’t try to engage in hero-worship, and leaves plenty of room for speculation around Woodruff’s motives, leaving the viewer to decide the balance between his selfishness and selflessness.  Years in the making, with incredible acting performances and a thought provoking subject, the Dallas Buyers Club demonstrates what a few committed individuals can achieve, in both real-life and in Hollywood.

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