With Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée, previously known for his penchant for hyper-stylization, attempts a gritty approach to the inspired-by-true-events, issue-driven biopic formula. Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a tenacious, rodeo-loving electrician from Texas who, upon being diagnosed with HIV, shouts at doctors, “I ain’t no faggot.” Not one to ever back down in a fight, Ron refuses to accept that he has 30 days left to live and, with a newfound knowledge of the disease, and booze streaming through his blood, he confronts the hospital’s administration and demands to be given AZT, a yet-to-be-FDA-approved pill that pharmaceutical companies are pushing for profit and that he gets on the sly through a hospital janitor. When his supply dries out, he heads to Mexico, where he’s eventually informed of an effective drug cocktail of proteins and vitamins, which he, dressed as a priest, smuggles back into the U.S. and—with the help of a well-connected, HIV-positive transsexual, Rayon (Jared Leto)—distributes via a membership-based business to people desperate for expensive, hard-to-get AIDS drugs.
Though shaggy in appearance, Dallas Buyers Club is rather neatly molded into a safe character study: an expletive-laced, man-versus-the-establishment melodrama that, with great didacticism, separates its heroes from its villains. Perhaps Vallée’s sharpest directorial choice is his decision to relinquish control to his actors—first and foremost McConaughey, who, with his sagging skin and even saggier bags under his eyes, is asked to carry the film on his frail shoulders. Woodroof is a boot-clad, bootlegging fighter and a salient stand-in for the American way, and it’s to the actor’s credit that he remains a fairly complex man in conflict with his preexisting bigoted ideologies, resisting the demarcated box of goodwill in which the screenwriters wish to place him.
Even as Woodroof’s character arc takes shape with his slow acceptance of the gay community, whom he’s helping initially out of self-interest, Vallée consistently highlights Woodroof’s machismo, pushing bikini-clad images that adorn Woodroof’s office and celebrating a bathroom fling with a woman who also has AIDS. And, whenever it appears Woodroof is coming off as too brutish, we’re reminded that he’s still suffering from AIDS as he’s subsumed by body-contorting pains and a noise in his head that’s as ear-splitting for him as it is for us. In one scene, Woodroof appears to be praying, bowing his head over candlelight before a dark background, urging to be shown a sign. The camera then quickly pulls back, only to reveal Ron inside a bar. It’s a gimmicky elucidation of the man’s priorities in a film that seems all too content in pigeonholing its characters.
Less successful is Leto, who’s primarily asked to trot around as Ron’s second-banana business partner, tossing off queeny one-liners with super-sassy aplomb. And as doctor Eve Sacks, whose goodness is often gratingly juxtaposed with the villainy of her superior (Denis O’Hare), Jennifer Garner is called on to look concerned all the time. There’s a slightly tacked-on and tacky subplot where Ron and Eve exchange flirtations that doesn’t so much stir any romance between them in the end as it dials up Eve’s righteous do-gooderism, which she fully commits to upon leveling a crooked painting of a flower that’s gifted to her by Ron and that she hangs on the wall of her shabby apartment with literally wall-busting rage. After Ron persuades Eve that AZT is poisonous, it’s only a matter of time before Eve rebels against her job and gets to curse out everyone at a hospital board meeting. Cue applause.
Vallée can’t help but evangelize Woodroof as a heterosexual savior for AIDS activism, and you wish Woodroof’s insouciant charisma and rebellious spirit would rub off on the paradigm-bound filmmaking as well, which grows increasingly cheaper as the characters and ethics turn from grey to black and white in the homestretch. The pandering paradigm begins to poke through with a supermarket scene where Woodroof forces a homophobic friend to shake Rayon’s hand, serving as a transparent catalyst for his newfound openness. Before long, clunky exposition devices become more apparent (Dr. Eve Sacks, who works in the hospital that’s testing AZT, seems to get her AIDS-related news from TV reports) and Woodroof gets to publicly shame the Big Phrama bad guys pushing expensive AZT on an AIDS support group (“I’m a drug dealer? No, you’re a fucking drug dealer!” Woodroof barks).
When pressed to explain how he came up with the idea of a membership-based buyers club for his magic formula, Woodroof credits “a bunch of fags in New York City”—a reference to the grassroots activist organization ACT UP. Despite its good intentions and moxie-filled performances, Dallas Buyers Club is ultimately marred by its impulse to compromise its freewheeling humanity in favor of crowd-pleasing tropes and, therefore, a more apt title may have been How to Survive a Plague of Conventions.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5—15.