Ron Woodroof begins Dallas Buyers Club in darkness, peering through the slats of a wooden barrier, bright arena lights filtering into his makeshift fortress. Yet there’s no contemplation accompanying this serene image, as the camera flips to reveal the cantankerous rodeo cowboy’s pre-performance rite: vigorously banging two groupies while snorting lines off their backs. A crude joke attached to a snippet of character detail, this introductory moment functions as an abstract of the entire film, with coarse, spirited gusto clashing hard against sentimental veneration. Forced by a shocking HIV diagnosis to square off against an unbeatable enemy, this gradually transformed hero keeps on spitting, swearing, and struggling, doing his damndest not to fall off the bull.
As portrayed by Matthew McConaughey, Woodroof starts off as an unrepentant scoundrel and progresses to a saintly hero figure, all while remaining salty and crass, in a role that gently tweaks the usual standards of Oscar-bait performances. After all the talk of McConaughey’s dramatic weight loss (he supposedly dropped 50 pounds for the part), it’s surprising that his emaciation isn’t developed as a condition of his advancing disease. Instead, he begins the film as a husk, a wasted skeleton jawing about women, whiskey, and faggots over hands of cash poker. The remainder of the narrative finds him in gradual repair, finding energy, purpose, and balance, even as his condition progresses. At the outset Ron is a caricature of limp masculinity, so weak he’s barely able to walk, yet propelled by sheer bravado to keep drinking and fighting, not realizing the scope of the disease that’s quickly killing him. The battle that ensues is thus presented on two fronts. In one sense Dallas Buyers Club is the story of a man’s struggle to endure, following the crushing news that he has only 30 days to live. In another it’s about repairing his moral and mental bearings after the utter destruction of his body, which he’d previously exploited as a pure receptor for soul-corroding pleasure. Set in mid-’80s Texas, with vague big pharma villains and an endearing queer sidekick, the film functions as a clear actor’s showcase for McConaughey, achieving little of note aside from his pleasingly leathery performance.
Spurned by his boorish buddies after catching a disease associated with gay men, Ron spirals downward for a while, scrambling for something to forestall his imminent demise. After a desperate trip to Mexico teaches him to bolster his fading immune system with a self-administered, quasi-illegal cocktail of vitamins and drugs, he decides to profit off this regimen economically as well as physically. Running his gray-market business out of a local motel, he emerges as a crusty savior figure for Dallas’s bewildered AIDS population. This marginalized group gets personified by Rayon (Jared Leto), a trans woman possessed with a similar enterprising spirit, whose local connections earn her a quarter share in Ron’s business.
Locked into character-profile mode, the film forsakes the opportunity for a broader recounting of the early days of AIDS in order to tell a recognizable story about a recognizable sort of redeemed bad boy. It’s a potentially troubling choice, considering the subtext of a heroic straight man delivering medicinal gospel to flocks of hopeless homosexuals. Yet this reads as more of a consequence of myopic protagonist focus than anything else, with all supporting players (including Jennifer Garner’s platonic love interest) relegated to the sidelines. Applying a bland but firm hand, director Jean-Marc Vallée sidesteps a variety of pitfalls while maintaining impressive control over the performances, which means that potentially unfortunate touches—like the spectacle of Jared Leto in drag—are presented with surprisingly low-key humanism. Dallas Buyers Club may be conventional, but at least it’s never sanctimonious, balancing out its familiar recovery angle with a healthy measure of sardonic wit.