It’s been 20 years since Jonathan Demme directed Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia," still the only blockbuster hit about AIDS. Now it’s director Jean-Marc Vallee’s ("The Young Victoria") turn, with Matthew McConaughey on board, to give that film a run for its money with a very different look at the same subject.
It’s been 20 years since Jonathan Demme directed Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia,” still the only blockbuster hit about AIDS. Now it’s director Jean-Marc Vallee’s (“The Young Victoria”) turn, with Matthew McConaughey on board, to give that film a run for its money with a very different look at the same subject.
This kind of based-on-fact story of a nasty, foul-mouthed, homophobic, redneck, womanizing, 100 percent heterosexual named Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is set in the Texas rodeo scene of the mid-1980s, when AIDS was running rampant but nobody really knew much about it yet.
I’m calling it “kind of based on fact” because, though everything about Woodroof in it is true – from being diagnosed HIV-positive to going through a hellish physical and emotional ride to turning into a crusader for alternative treatments for himself and other AIDS patients – all of the characters around him in the film have been invented by the screenwriters. And that’s fine, because they’ve fashioned a fascinating hybrid of truth and fiction that serves to get its message across by making it more accessible and watchable for a general audience, and doing so without exploiting Woodroof and his cause.
We’re introduced to Woodroof as partying guy, enjoying himself in a three-way sex scene. But soon after, he’s coughing a lot and falling down, figuring it’s only from his regular doses of excessive behavior. But an accident sends him to the hospital, where routine blood tests show him to be HIV-positive.
It’s at this point where you realize the film isn’t going to hold back on intensity or in portraying Woodroof’s off-putting bluntness. “I ain’t no faggot!” he says, incredulously to the doctor. This is also where the sexist part of his persona comes through, accusing Dr. Saks (Jennifer Garner) of being “only a nurse.”
Woodroof makes it very clear that he’s not a nice man, and he doesn’t give a damn about that fact. He’s still got his drinking buddies, and all of those women he sleeps with (ah, but how many of those women do the kind of drugs that involve sharing needles?).
McConaughey, in a remarkable performance, gives us a Woodroof, who, though he won’t admit it out loud, is shaken to the core by his diagnosis, one that gives him 30 days to live, one that initially gets him partying harder than ever as a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the bad news, but eventually puts him on the road to research.
If all of this sounds too grim to spend your entertainment dollars on, fear not. It’s a story that starts by throwing someone into a spiraling hole of desperation but turns into one of transformation, of watching Woodroof change from a jerk to an investigator, from someone trying to prove the medical community wrong to becoming an activist and crusader.
McConaughey’s work over the past few years, from “Bernie” to “Magic Mike,” from “Killer Joe” to “Mud,” has shown him to be an actor who’s found a new depth and energy in his career. His commitment in this film ranges from fearlessly presenting a despicable character to shedding close to 50 pounds in order to realistically portray an AIDS sufferer.
The movie’s ante is upped by the presence of Jared Leto as Rayon, a transsexual with AIDS, who evolves from the target of Woodroof’s vicious barbs to his partner in crime – the “crime” being the creation of the Dallas Buyers Club, whose ailing members can obtain the illegal alternative drugs from Mexico that seem to be working better than the drugs being prescribed by doctors in American hospitals, where AIDS, at the time, was surrounded by confusion and misinformation.
A note on Leto’s amazing performance: I didn’t even know he was in the film till the end credits ran. It’s too bad that the script doesn’t give Jennifer Garner much to do. Her Dr. Saks is comparatively flat and bland, which oddly works out well for the film because it makes the other characters stand out more vibrantly.
Things eventually turn pretty grim, and different audience members will react differently to the conclusion. There will certainly be discussions about Ron Woodroof, who stayed around a lot longer than the 30 days given to him. He’s a guy who lived life hard and selfishly, then lived it even harder, for the benefit of others.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
With Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner
Written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack; directed by Jean-Marc Vallee