by Michael Nordine
The last month has been dominated by survival narratives: “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips,” “All Is Lost,” and “12 Years a Slave” all chart the will to live in face of seemingly insurmountable odds. “Dallas Buyers Club” follows suit, but it tweaks the formula by focusing on a figure as unsympathetic as he is hard to kill.
Loosely based on a true story beginning in 1986, Jean-Marc Vallée’s film concerns a homophobic Texan named Ron Woodroof who gets diagnosed with HIV and told he has 30 days to live. Woodroof, a binge-drinking, chain-smoking cocaine (ab)user whose main haunt has Confederate flags hanging on the walls, at first refuses to believe what his doctors have just told him — HIV/AIDS is a “gay” disease, he reasons, and surely someone as straight as he couldn’t be afflicted with it.
Not for nothing has so much ink already been spilled on Matthew McConaughey’s transition from disposable romantic comedies (“The Wedding Planner,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”) to nuanced dramas (“Bernie,” “Mud”) over the last few years. “Dallas Buyers Club” will likely come to be regarded as the completion of that transition. You can see the physical toll this latest performance took on the almost skeletally thin thesp, who’s said to have lost 38 pounds for the role, not only in his emaciated body but also in his eyes — he simply looks tired, worn down. “Gotta die somehow,” Woodroof says upon first hearing his grim diagnosis; after years of self-destructive, devil-may-care behavior, his statement reads as the first of many defense mechanisms to come.
“Dallas Buyers Club” observes the stigma of AIDS from the perspective of a dual victim/former stigmatizer himself. Movie logic dictates that redemption must therefore be a vital element of its narrative arc, and Vallée sees it through with unexpected subtlety. There’s no grandiose moment of clarity for Woodroof, just the gradual (and largely unspoken) realization that his present situation will be somewhat alleviated by going with the flow rather than swimming against it. That this is initially motivated by the chance to make some money – Woodroof outlives his initial diagnosis thanks to a non-FDA-approved regimen of vitamins and other substances, then decides to sell that same cocktail en masse to others suffering from the same ailment – makes his slow transformation both more believable and less sentimental. This approach is nothing new in and of itself, but it is suited to the material. Vallée’s film is built on small moments rather than Oscar reel-ready grandstanding, which is a pleasant surprise coming from a movie that seemed poised to traverse the typical awards-bait path.
The anti-big pharma tack it eventually takes on, however, has already been done elsewhere so often that emphasizing it here mostly serves to distract from the film’s strengths, namely its two lead performances. (McConaughey is joined by a surprisingly game Jared Leto, here playing a transvestite/fellow AIDS patient who joins Woodroof in his entrepreneurial venture.) “Dare to live” is the film’s treacly tagline, but Woodroof would be more likely to quote McConaughey’s first memorable character, Wooderson of “Dazed and Confused”: “You just gotta keep livin’, man.”
Opening at Arclight Hollywood, The Landmark, and AMC Century City on November 1.