Based on the purportedly true story, Dallas Buyers Club tells the tale of a man named Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) who is diagnosed with HIV (and later AIDS), given 30 days to live, and sent on his way. He decides that instead of dying like a normal person, he would seek out the best treatment available, even if that meant seeking out illegal methods. Eventually, he got drugs and vitamins from Mexico, opened up a “club” which would hand out these drugs to other HIV/AIDS patients, and continued living until his eventual death, which was a significant time longer than the doctors predicted.
That’s the whole movie, right there. It’s based on a true story, so it’s not like you can really spoil something like this, can you? It’s not going to surprise anyone that a hard-partying man diagnosed with HIV in 1985 is going to die at some point, is it? This is a film about the journey, not about the destination. Knowing how it has to end is ultimately irrelevant. It’s about what this one person was able to do with his remaining time.
It’s also about completely slamming the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the organization that gets to decide which drugs are able to be prescribed to patients in America. The film begins by making a quick mention that the only drug approved by the FDA is something called AZT, which was never really tested as safe and that it was only approved because of financial reasons, but Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t really get into slamming the FDA until it starts to impact Woodroof’s business. It’s at that point that all of its evil practices are brought to light.
It’s kind of amazing just what Ron Woodroof is able to do with himself after getting himself clean, sober, and pumped full of drugs to treat his symptoms instead of make him high. He’s not necessarily a good person — he does this for profit, he’s homophobic, and he’s not really a nice person — but he’s smart, cunning, and has a will that you have to admire. And the amount that he accomplishes over the film’s duration is inspirational.
Perhaps even more impressive is the doctor who winds up treating Woodroof in Mexico, Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who is the one who concocts the cocktail that nurses Woodroof, and hundreds others, back to a semblance of health. He doesn’t really get a lot of credit in the film, even though he’s the one who makes any of this possible. Woodroof’s tale is inspirational and he makes for a far better main character, but none of it is possible without Dr. Vass. Since the film skimps on giving him credit, this paragraph goes out to him.
There are few surprises in Dallas Buyers Club. The only true surprise comes from just how successful the treatment Woodroof takes is. Corporations are always evil, so the movies tell us, so that doesn’t come as a shock in this one. There’s one “good” doctor, Eve (Jennifer Garner), because there’s always one, I guess. This isn’t a complicated or complex screenplay but it tells a story that’s worth telling.
It is not, however, a terribly emotionally compelling story. You feel inspired after it ends, sure, but there are a few smaller moments when the film really wants you to care and it’s just hard to bring yourself to do so. The ancillary characters are so underdeveloped — the film is focused almost solely on Woodroof, which is a double-edged sword — that their fate hardly matters. And Woodroof stays alive right up until the end credits; it’s only via text that we learn his fate. One character goes through the slow, painful death, but it’s not Woodroof and therefore it’s tough to care.
Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t suffer from poor acting. Far from it. Two of the performances in the film are Oscar-caliber. The first is Matthew McConaughey, who has really turned his career around in the last few years. He’ll never be a tremendously deep actor but he has a natural charisma and is a far better actor when playing an intelligent character. Second, we have Jared Leto, who plays a transgender woman, and is unrecognized. You wouldn’t know it was him unless you look at the credits or read it online. Both actors lost a significant amount of weight for their roles.
It’s a bit of a surprise that a film lacking in plot and supporting cast still manages to move along at a good pace. The film is nearly two hours in length but only starts to drag in the last ten. A couple of scenes maybe could have been trimmed but for the most part, even though the proceedings are similar for much of the story, we’re kept entertained. Some of this is helped by a strong sense of humor and lots of it is because of great acting.
Dallas Buyers Club is a great piece of filmmaking. It has great performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, a consistently inspirational story, a damning message against the FDA, and enough humor to keep the tone somewhat light even though the characters’ situations are often very grave. It needed more depth to the supporting characters, but all in all it’s a film that’s well worth seeing. I recommend giving Dallas Buyers Club a watch.