About a decade ago there was a small list of movie subjects virtually guaranteed to earn an actor an Oscar nomination. One of those coveted roles was someone with AIDS. Tom Hanks gave his majestic turn in Philadelphia and for a while the floodgates opened wide. Yet it slowed down dramatically as society changed; we became used to HIV/AIDS as a part of our daily social contract, and new fears arose to challenge the dramatic audiences. But for millions of people, the rise of AIDS was not just bait for acting accolades, it was a nightmarish reality they dealt with inside a world scarcely ready to understand it. In those times, people struggled to survive in any way they knew how and this story highlights one of those desperate and unstoppable souls.
Dallas Buyers Club tells the tale of Ron Woodroof, a salt-of-the-earth, trailer-dwelling electrician who has lived his life in a haze between bottles and bimbos. Then the ball dropped, along with his T-cell count, and he found out he had HIV. Using his brain, which few people would ever imagine he had, he hustled, wheeled and dealed his way through medical trials and experimental treatments in order to stay alive. Once he realized that he could do it, he saw an opportunity to do the same for others, while also turning a nifty profit. Hey, even angels have a little dust on their wings.
Being a true story about the phenomenon of these buyer’s clubs (where AIDS patients paid for memberships and got medications as a loophole through existing drug laws), it’s inherently dramatic, but the film shines far more in it’s performances than it’s storytelling. It needs to cover years of Ron’s life skating away from the long arm of the law, while still fighting day-to-day to keep his body healthy. Due to that time frame, it feels drawn out at times, but that’s where you find yourself watching the actors more their skill more than their story.
Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto form an unlikely bond, not only through their characters, but also through the sheer trial they put their bodies through for the roles. Both actors were freakishly thin at varying points (nothing like Christian Bale in The Machinist, but damn close), yet emanating from those emaciated frames was an intensity which draws you in. The efforts and skills paid off because both McConaughey and Leto walked away with Oscar nominations (as did the film itself.)
The movie also acts as a not-so-subtle polemic against the FDA and its cozy relationship with big pharma. In a country with millions upon millions of sick people in desperate need of specific medications, we watch in horror as the FDA ties it up in red tape, blocks approval of experimental drugs and outright lies about current treatments being useful, all in the name of record setting profits. Whether or not the unconscionable behaviors of the FDA agents in the film are completely accurate, the taste in your mouth when the credits roll is less than sweet.
Dallas Buyers Club stands as a story of survival against all odds, interwoven with strong performances and strong opinions.