Review by Pete Mason
The AIDS movement in 2013 is far different than the emerging movement in the 1980s, the setting for “Dallas Buyers Club,” the true story of how Ron Woodroof got life-saving medicine to those afflicted with AIDS when there were no viable treatments on the market. Now, deaths from AIDS are rarer and do not pepper the news with stories on the tragedy surrounding what was once called a “gay plague.” But in the ’80s, few knew what this new disease was, and a cure seemed impossible. Today, we are nearer to curing AIDS and have found combinations of medicine and vitamins that were unimaginable 20 years ago. “Dallas Buyers Club” tells the tale of an era that few knew existed and would shock many when confronted with the stigma and homophobia of the ’80s.
Matthew McConaughy plays the hero, Ron Woodroof, a homophobic Texas cowboy/electrician, a womanizer and gambler who drinks, drugs and deals his way through life in 1985. An accident at work sends him to the hospital where Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) inform him he has HIV and a T-cell count of only nine, and that he has only 30 days to live. This is so early in the AIDS crisis that 30 days was a best estimate, while Ron would end up living until 1992. Ron takes the next few weeks to find out all he can about AIDS, seeing doctors and learning what remedies might exist for him.
In the process, Woodroof turns over a new leaf, but still retains his homophobia, for he is ostracized from his friends and community because only gays have AIDS at this early point in time. (Education on the subject wasn’t the best, in Texas, or anywhere for that matter.) He is an outcast, and finds himself sharing a hospital room with Rayon (an Oscar-worthy performance by Jared Leto). The two connect, distantly at first, but come to form a loose partnership, although Ron doesn’t let that word get used freely, and retains his homophobia in slowly decreasing levels throughout the film.
Through this partnership they help hundreds through a semi-legal “buyers club” that sells memberships and gives away drugs and vitamins that Woodroof finds in Mexico and around the world, particularly after his research on AZT shows that the then-trial drug is ineffective in the long term. “Prescribing” a cocktail of vitamins, DDC and Peptide T, Ron finds a combination that works for him, through the assistance of an unlicensed American doctor working in Mexico (Griffin Dunne). He begins selling the concoctions to locals in need, and with the help of Rayon, he slowly expands his business which grows to be more and more lucrative. But Woodroof isn’t in it for the money, and doesn’t flash the money around. He wants to live and gets the drugs for himself, just in mass quantities that allow him to help others. This begins his change in character, where he finds himself and his purpose – to help others in defiance of bureaucracy.
Soon the FDA and IRS catch wind of Woodroof’s business and step in, casting the shadow of government interference, a hallmark of the 1980s AIDS crisis. The government, in this case FDA agent Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill) and Dr. Sevard, play the obstructionist role in preventing Woodroof from continuing his Buyers Club. Dr. Saks assists indirectly and later with more direct advice and support as she slowly learns of the promise new drug trials have shown, as well as the benefits of Ron’s methods and research. As a result, he saves the lives, and extends the lives of many, while the bureaucracy of the FDA doesn’t put the solutions into the hands of those in need.
McConaughy lost a LOT of weight to play the waifish Woodroof, looking as boney as Christian Bale in “The Machinist.” His gait and weary appearance as the film progresses shows his muscle worn away to nothing, resembling actor William Fichtner at times as his jawline becomes more pronounced as the fat disappears. Jared Leto likewise lost 30 pounds for the role as the transvestite Rayon (ne Ray) who is shunned by his family and society, taking up drugs and Woodroof’s cocktail, knowing full well there is an expiration date on his life.
There is hardly a dull moment in the film, and you grow to hate Woodroof early, then empathize with him as the film, and he, progress. McConaughy gives the film a purpose and heart, but Leto is the soul of the film. It is a true role of a lifetime for both, but especially Leto; few roles are played as well as Leto plays Rayon.
As compelling as “Philadelphia” but removed 20 years later from the stigma that was still strong in the early ’90s, “Dallas Buyers Club” looks back at an early hero of the AIDS movement. Back when the disease was reserved for gays and drug users, and struck fear into the psyche of the country before facts arose and life extending drugs became readily – if not affordably- accessible, the only solution was individuals like Woodroof, who took it upon themselves to save others and give a voice to the AIDS crusade.