When we first meet Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) the southern redneck might, in some circles, be described best as an ignorant sumbitch. Coasting through life with no cares deeper or more involved than rodeo, fucking, betting, drinking and drugs, Woodroof certainly isn’t ready to discover he has HIV which he and everyone around him still consider a gay disease.
Based on a true story, the tale could have gone as one might imagine. Given a prognosis of 30 days to live, and ostracized by his friends, you might expect a downward spiral into oblivion or a last-minute feel-good redemption tale. Thankfully for the audience, Dallas Buyers Club has far higher aspirations and Ray Woodroof led a far more interesting life after being diagnosed.
Although ignorant, Woodroof isn’t dumb. Possessed with a keen mind and driven by both greed and his own continued survival, the film follows the unusual path his life takes after researching not only the disease but also various medical treatments all over the world for the treatment of HIV and AIDS.
Although several of his choices and methods aren’t what one might call legal, such as stealing experimental drugs from a pair of doctors’ (Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare) FDA-approved AZT study to smuggling non-approved drugs into the United States for both himself and others, the moves and methods born out of desperation are fairly impressive.
The screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack is a character study of a man who certainly grows and evolves with a greater understanding of the world as he puts his knack for getting around the law to good use. However, despite the actions taken to help others, Woodroof’s actions are never without some component of helping himself at the same time. Being diagnosed doesn’t immediately stop the guy from being a selfish prick, although his experiences play a large role in changing aspects of his overall world view.
Although Woodroof is too multi-dimensional to be labeled a hero, the film’s villains are much easier to pick out. There are three: 1. The ignorant group to which Woodroof once belonged and finds himself ostracized from after his diagnosis, 2. Hospitals who are shown as little more than than the puppets of big business, and 3. The Food and Drug Administration who continually refuses to legalize drugs it knows are safe and effective to stay in bed with the drug companies lining its pockets.
Woodroof’s journey of discovery and survival will take him around the world beginning with a trip to a doctor (Griffin Dunne) working in Mexico. This meeting will not only begin his struggle to drastically outlive is original prognosis but also begin an impressive smuggling business growing slowly into an empire that brings in alternative drugs from Mexico, Japan, Israel, Amsterdam, and China to cut out hospitals and sell directly to AIDS patients. He even gets around drug dealing charges by incorporating his company and selling $400 memberships for the drugs rather than the non-approved drugs themselves.
Jared Leto is getting early award notice for his role as a drag queen who, as unlikely as it initially seems, becomes Woodroof’s friend and business partner. Although Leto is certainly worthy of notice, McConaughey’s performance, although less flashy, is far more interesting. The charming swindler has to continually make morally-ambiguous decisions to keep his fledgling empire (and himself) alive, and neither McConaughey nor Jean-Marc Vallée are afraid to let the character’s rougher-edges show.
Centered around the Woodroof’s remaining time after his diagnosis, Dallas Buyers Club has little interest in either the earlier part of the man’s life or the circumstances surrounding his death. Although for a character-drvien biopic this leaves several questions unanswered, the films focus helps delve deeper into the period of time the screenwriters and director are most concerned with.
McConaughey’s performance alone is worth the ticket price to see Dallas Buyers Club in theaters. If the film has a flaw, however, it’s that his character’s moral ambiguity isn’t seen in the rest of the film. The FDA, large hospitals, the U.S. judicial system and even hard-working doctors (with the exception of Garner’s characters) are all painted in broad strokes as mustache-twirling villains out to stop Woodroof for no other reason than their refusal to question their own regulations, or give up their own greedy motives and dislike of him personally. Even if the film gets increasingly simplistic in this aspect as the story goes on, it never derails a well-made true story highlighted by an impressive lead performance by its star.