Matthew McConaughey is quickly working his way to the top of my favorite actors list. During my formative years, he starred in a number of less-reputable films that I loved (How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days and The Wedding Planner, anyone?) although with age, I came to realize how frivolous and silly those movies were. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy indulging in them from time to time, but it certainly lowered my estimation of Mr. McConaughey.
Enter the year 2013 and Matthew McConaughey blew me away in Mud, playing the title character, an outlaw who befriends two young boys in an effort to outrun the authorities with the love of his life in tow. Following on the heels of that Oscar-worthy performance is another McConaughey movie with lots of Oscar buzz: Dallas Buyers Club. And I’m back on team McConaughey again.
Once again McConaughey takes the lead, this time portraying Ron Woodroof, Texas rodeo junkie, open homophobe, and drug-addict who discovers he has contracted HIV and is given a mere 30 days to live. But this isn’t the world of today, when public knowledge of HIV and AIDS is widespread, when people understand how the virus is spread. This is 1985, the year when Rock Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis is revealed, when the disease is grossly misunderstood by the public and even the medical community, when the term “HIV” is equated with homosexual behavior in everyone’s minds.
Remarkably enough, Woodroof outlives those 30 days after self-medicating with non-FDA-approved pills. A longtime illicit drug user, Woodroof has no qualms about obtaining illegal substances through criminal means. When he discovers that AZT, the highly coveted drug in the preliminary stages of human testing in the US, is toxic to the human body, he turns to other medications popular among HIV patients outside the states. Connecting with a network of patients through Rayon, an HIV-positive transvestite Ron meets in the hospital, the formerly homophobic man capitalizes upon his discovery and creates the Dallas Buyers Club, an outlet for the alternative HIV/AIDS treatments Woodroof has smuggled into the states. Instead of illegally selling medication directly to the people, the club’s clientele purchases a monthly membership with which they are granted unlimited access to Woodroof’s drugs. This enterprising plan entangles Woodroof with the FDA but also provides an audience and a platform for his campaign to end AZT drug trials at the local hospital.
The change in Woodroof’s attitude toward gay people is subtle and well played; he certainly capitalizes upon the sheer volume of homosexuals infected with the HIV/AIDS virus, but his motive with the buyers club is not financial success, it is to help improve and prolong the lives of others suffering from the disease. One of the most notable scenes in the film comes when Woodroof is at the height of his reign with the club. While grocery shopping with Rayon, Ron runs into TJ, a homophobic friend from his Rodeo days. TJ refuses to shake Rayon’s hand after the two are introduced. Quickly confining TJ in a headlock, Woodroof forces his old buddy to shake hands with his new transvestite friend. Throughout the entire scene, it’s clear that TJ thinks his initial suspicion that Ron was a closeted gay man are confirmed, for here he is with a cross-dressing man in public. But with a beautiful selflessness and confidence, Woodroof coolly avoids clarifying the nature of his relationship with Rayon to TJ. It’s as though Ron wouldn’t dare deign to correct his old friend’s false assumption because Ron himself is so far past that form of bigotry and hate. His only concern is that Rayon be treated with the basic decency any human being deserves. It was the kind of scene that really stuck with me, and I imagine it will be the one that defines this film whenever I think of it in the future.
Did I mention that the whole movie is based on a true story? It’s a pretty remarkable story at that, but the fact that this film recounts a series of historical events is what leads to its most glaring (but still, not very glaring at all) flaw: the ending of the movie left something to be desired. Obviously this isn’t a film deserving of a neat and tidy happy ending, given the content. Things are a little jumpy as the film nears its conclusion and viewers don’t get a clear view of what happens to the Dallas Buyers Club itself or how Woodroof’s fight against the FDA contributes to eventual changes in HIV treatment. The trouble is that the story of the fight against HIV/AIDS is so much bigger than Ron Woodroof, but his relatively small vignette is so interesting as to be film-worthy. A valiant effort is made to provide a satisfying ending when the story turns to questions of how to live the one life we’re each given. Under the auspices of the movie’s tagline “dare to live,” Woodroof talks with his doctor regarding his doubts about the way he lived his life. The content of this conversation comes back into play during the final scenes of the movie, an attempt at providing audiences with a satisfactorily happy ending to Woodroof’s difficult story.
McConaughey’s performance in this film is fantastic, quite separate from the dramatic physical transformation he went through to look the role of an HIV patient. Casting Jared Leto as Rayon was a bold and brilliant move. It took me some time to recognize Leto as Rayon because his performance completely lacked the self-consciousness I would have expected from a straight male playing a transvestite. Jennifer Garner is Dr. Eve Saks, one of the physicians overseeing the AZT trials who grows close to her patients and finds herself morally confused regarding the apparent results of the trial. Steve Zahn is notable as Tucker, a local cop who knows Woodroof and pops up from time to time when he comes into trouble with the law. There are plenty of other familiar faces throughout the movie, but McConaughey and Leto truly take the cake on this one. I’m not sure how often I’ll be overcome with a desire to re-watch this film, but I certainly would have regretted missing this one with such remarkable performances of a complicated but artfully-told story.