There was a time in history, relatively not that long ago, when guys like Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) simply didn’t get AIDS. HIV/AIDS was the “gay disease,” a means of weeding out the socially deviant from those in polite society who had unprotected sex with multiple, anonymous women like Woodroof did habitually. Dallas Buyers Club is about the collapse of that definition, of how AIDS is a disease that can affect anybody, not simply those in the queer community. And if that sounds a little preachy, well, the film very much is, trading heavily in crowd-pleasing theatrics and an anti-hero designed to serve as a point of identification for an audience that might share his ethos. That said, as “message movies” go, Dallas Buyers Club is a pretty good one.
After testing HIV-positive, Woodroof is hardly compelled to give up his hard-drinking, harder-snorting, and hardest-copulating pastime. He instead doubles down on the irresponsible trysts, even as his weight falls off at an alarming rate and his faculties start failing him. Soon his friends figure out what’s going on, taught by the news what AIDS looks like, and the tough-shit Texas community that Woodroof long ruled turns its back on him. Desperate for a cure, and with his diagnosed month left to live rapidly winding down, Woodroof commits to taking an experimental drug known as AZT, which he ultimately rejects because of its catastrophic side effects. (For a drug that’s still used as part of many AIDS-fighting medicinal cocktails to this day, Dallas Buyers Club takes great pains to cast AZT as the Lucifer of medications.) After his failed stint as a lab rat, Woodroof heads to Mexico, where all-natural (and FDA-unapproved) medications can be purchased and smuggled back into the country.
The early stretch of Dallas Buyers Club feels like a cross between Gran Torinoand a second-tier documentary about the AIDS crisis, with McConaughey in the Clint Eastwood role of a man’s man who has to learn to live in a new world that angers and makes little sense to him. Essential to that world is Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman who knows a lot of people who’d make good customers for Woodroof if he were to start importing a great deal more of the new Mexican medicines. They form a “buyers club” to circumvent distribution laws, and because Dallas Buyers Club isn’t really in the subtlety business, Ron is initially repulsed by Rayon, only to learn lessons about friendship and mutual respect through struggle.
McConaughey and Leto as a team are Dallas Buyers Club’s saving grace. When the film starts beating its lessons home with a shoe in hand (which is often), the chemistry between the two lends the film numerous shades of subtlety that the film never really earns. (Ron’s quasi-relationship with an empathetic doctor played by Jennifer Garner incidentally feels rather forced because of how much more magnetic Leto proves as a scene partner.) McConaughey’s career resurgence comes full circle here, with Woodroof evolving from a one-note character early on to a man whose greatest attribute in life is his relentless hustle. If learning sexual tolerance and softening some of his rougher edges becomes part of that hustle, so be it, and this serves as a starting point for Woodroof’s evolution into a noble cowboy, as opposed to the intolerant kind.
However, if this is one of McConaughey’s best performances, this is indisputably Leto’s best work to date. As Rayon, Leto is equal parts delicate and steely, struggling with her femininity and a past that’s mercifully avoided save for one poignant sequence in which Rayon has to perform her birth gender for the sake of appeasing her distant father. About halfway through the film, Ron and Rayon are out grocery shopping when a former friend of Ron’s (Steve Zahn) starts tossing transphobic slurs at Rayon. It’s a measure of how good the leads inDallas Buyers Club are that when Ron attacks his ex-friend, forcing him to shake a beaming Rayon’s hand, the moment is truly touching and nowhere near as on-the-nose as it probably should be. This moment makes for an effective microcosm of Dallas Buyers Club: a film being restrained from its simplistic impulses by two of this year’s finest performances.