Dallas Buyer’s Club starts with a skeletal moustached Matthew McConaughey, pants down, bucking in the stall with some gungy honeys while just outside cowboys and clowns get trampled in the dirt by furious broncos. This gets at least a B+ for inventive ominousness. McConaughey’s playing one Ron Woodroof, the real-life Texan electrician, amateur rodeo rider and professional party boy who in 1985 learned he had HIV and was given 30 days to live. Determined to beat those odds rather than succumb to despair—“I prefer to die with my boots on,” he says—Woodroof starts gobbling up black market AZT. When he finds that AZT only makes matters worse, he investigates and begins to patronize global experiments in AIDS-fighting medicines, eventually opening his own “buyer’s club” so as to get those non-FDA-approved meds to people who need them and support his own treatment program.
Along the way, Woodroof goes from being a violent, bigoted asshole whose apparently abundant sex appeal is rather mysterious—despite the fact that he’s Matthew McConaughey—to being a paragon of openhearted endurance and pansexual brotherhood. This reformation of the redneck dirtbag is by far the film’s most impressive achievement, with capital-K kudos to McConaughey, though the radical weight loss McConaughey underwent for the role is problematic. This shocking physical transformation is presumably meant to dissolve the actor into the character, but I find it has rather the opposite effect: there are times when you look at McConaughey’s emaciated body and all you can think is, Why is the actor doing this to himself? Jared Leto also stands out—both for his own weight loss and for the strength of his performance—as Woodroof’s business partner, a drug-addled transgendered person who listens to nothing but T-Rex. Leto looks really good as a woman.
Café de flore director Jean-Marc Vallée seems to have a special interest in tales of wild men coming down after riding high in the saddle. Working from a workmanlike script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Vallée seems unusually invested in clear storytelling, employing refreshing few of the stylistic flourishes that make some of his films feel like music videos. Dallas Buyer’s Club’s most visually flamboyant moment is actually quite lovely, with Woodroof wandering into a room full of butterflies. The scene could easily have been cut, but I’m glad it remains. The image says so much about this character’s transformation without speaking a single word.
P.S.: If you want to learn more about how big pharma and the U.S. government appallingly failed to respond to the AIDS epidemic, see the documentary How to Survive a Plague.