Biopic Dallas Buyers Club

Non FDA-Approved Film Review: Dallas Buyers Club

November 1, 2013Ben MK

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Defying the odds and defying the law

When you think of movies set in the '80s, you think of big hair, Cosby sweaters and Wall Street stockbrokers. What you may not think of is one of that decade's defining events: the world health crisis that was the rise of the AIDS epidemic. During that time -- in response to the lack of proper treatment and medication for AIDS patients -- so-called buyers clubs began springing up across the United States, providing the afflicted with access to medication not legally available in the US. Dallas Buyers Club is the story of one such club, started by a man who defied both the odds and the system, named Ron Woodroof. But more specifically, it's the story of his journey to redemption.

When we first meet Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in the film, he's an emaciated, homophobic, hard-drinking, drug and sex addict -- more wrapped up in his own ways than he is concerned about others. Ron lives his life around the rodeo and its bull riders, which also serves as the perfect metaphor for how he lives his life in general: with reckless abandon. His lifestyle finally catches up with him, however, when a trip to the hospital leads to the revelation that he's HIV-positive. Suddenly, he's faced With a grim 30-day prognosis and two options: either accept the inevitable or fight it with everything he has left.

Not to undermine the film by simplifying it to the point of analogy, but the most apt description for Dallas Buyers Club is Philadelphia meets Erin Brockovich. Ron is the quintessential "little guy", an AIDS patient fighting against the system -- against Big Pharma -- in this case, the FDA. When Ron receives his diagnosis, clinical trials of a new drug called AZT are just starting up, and he's desperate to be a part of it. But instead of finding a life-saving miracle drug, he finds himself brought to death's door by the toxic concoction. Eventually, he finds better forms of treatment in Mexico; and he sets up the Dallas Buyers Club to sell it to those who can't legally obtain it. Along the way, his reasons become less about money and more about helping those in need, but that doesn't stop the FDA from trying to shut him down for selling unapproved drugs. It's a classic David and Goliath tale, told from a perspective that mainstream audiences haven't seen before.

Despite the sombre subject matter, director Jean-Marc Vallée's film isn't overly morose. It's poignant and heartbreaking but also surprisingly humorous in spots, largely owing to McConaughey's performance. He infuses the role with light touches of his trademark charisma, but make no mistake -- this is not the Matthew McConaughey that audiences know. Much like Charlize Theron in Monster and Christian Bale in The Machinist, he undergoes a stunning physical transformation for the film, allowing him to disappear completely into his role. Likewise for Jared Leto, who plays Ron's unlikely business partner, a cross-dresser named Rayon, who happens to be a fellow AIDS patient. Their relationship anchors the film -- as two strangers who start off worlds apart but who eventually grow to depend on and value one another -- and is one of the key factors that inspire change in Ron. Both actors shed a significant amount of weight for their roles, and they give such mesmerizing and memorable performances that it's easy to forget about their usual leading man good looks. The faces of the stellar supporting cast are more recognizable, however, and they include Jennifer Garner, Dennis O'Hare, Dallas Roberts, Steve Zahn and Griffin Dunne.

The Bottom Line

Dallas Buyers Club offers a stirring look at the AIDS crisis from the front lines -- from the perspectives of those with the most at stake -- and reveals an angle to the story that few may be aware of. Add to that the engrossing performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, and the result is a film that draws you into its characters' plights from the get-go and doesn't let go until the closing credits roll. [★★★★]

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