Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Runtime: 117 minutes
As a film, Dallas Buyers Club is competent and effective. This isn't the sort of film that wows with writing or directing (especially the former). Instead, it's a simple, issue-driven drama that serves as a vehicle for some first-rate performances. Dallas Buyers Club isn't likely to stand the test of time, but it does provide an effective platform for Matthew McConaughey's continuing career renaissance, as well as a return to the silver screen for actor/singer Jared Leto.
Any number of films have covered some aspect of the AIDS crisis, including last year's documentary How to Survive a Plague. This true-life story, however, tackles the topic with a protagonist who's anything but what one would expect. Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is a free-wheeling, hard-living Texas good ole boy, as heterosexual as they come. In the opening scenes, he drinks, fights, participates in the rodeo, and throws a few homophobic slurs at Rock Hudson. Suffice it to say that he's far from an ally to the LGBTQ movement.
That doesn't exactly change when, after collapsing in his trailer park home, he's diagnosed with HIV. Initially offended by the mere idea that he could even have the virus, Ron eventually comes to grips with his situation. The fire in his eyes, initially a lust for life, suddenly becomes a burning desire to survive. Of course, obstacles abound, namely the medical establishment. Even kind-hearted doctor Eve (Jennifer Garner) is initially determined to make Ron stick to a trial medicine that seems to do more harm than good. Ron, not content with the timeline of his so called treatment, decides to take things into his own hands with a trip into Mexico.
At its core, Dallas Buyers Club is a classic story of a rebel railing against part of the establishment. With conversations about healthcare taking up so much space in current public discourse, the film couldn't feel more contemporary, even though it begins in the early 80s. Having the AIDS crisis as a backdrop proves to be fertile ground for director Jean-Marc Vallee and writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. Neither the writing nor directing handle the setting with histrionics or melodrama.
This is a gritty, efficient film, and a complete 180 from Vallee's last film, the stuffy and unremarkable The Young Victoria. Proving himself an adept chameleon of a director, Vallee lends a (sometimes overeager) energy to the proceedings that gives the story a sense of urgency. With its handheld photography and reportedly brief shoot, Dallas Buyers Club certainly feels kinetic and alive, even as it tackles a story with painful, life or death consequences. Every now and then Vallee's energy threatens to overwhelm the film - as in a montage of Woodroof traveling abroad - but by and large he gets the job done with just enough flair, all while leaving room for his actors.
Whatever Dallas Buyers Club may be lacking in its overall execution, it makes up for with McConaughey and Leto's committed performances. McConaughey lost a frightening amount of weight for the role, but his appearance is dealt with so matter-of-factly that it's never used as lazy characterization. So many films involving body transformations fail to provide actors with anything to really do beneath their transformations.
Dallas Buyers Club, at the very least, gets the transformative aspect out of the way without any pretense. McConaughey is allowed to be active, physically and emotionally, and the film is better off for it. While I'm still partial to his terrifying turn in last year's Killer Joe, his work here is another excellent addition to his current critical resurgence. Leto, as the cross-dressing Rayon, is also effective in his sheer commitment to his character's mannerisms. Just when the film seems ready to leave Leto with nothing to do on an emotional level, the script throws out some material to give the actor a chance to show why we should be glad that he's acting again. There are tears and pained expressions in Dallas Buyers Club, but they're all a far cry from cheap, manipulative melodrama.
Ultimately, part of what keeps the film from being more than a performance showcase is its reticence to dig deeper into the far-reaching consequences of Woodroof's illegal ring of unapproved HIV medication. Other "buyers clubs" are mentioned, but for the most part Borten and Wallack's script is almost entirely focused on Woodroof's world. The man's story, and his gradual adjustment from his worst homophobic tendencies and attitudes, is compelling, but it also feels as though it needs to be grounded in a fuller context.
Admittedly, it's a difficult balance to strike, but in this case the small focus does rob the film of deeper, more lasting impact. As a story of righteous anger and rebellion, Dallas Buyers Club has enough heart and intelligence to make it recommended viewing. But as a look at a major social movement in a turbulent decade, it can't help but feel like a footnote, despite the excellent performances leading the way.