Review

'Dallas Buyers Club' Shines Without Saints, Sinners or Sentimentality

It feels as though 'Dallas Buyers Club' was made in the image of its hero, who - even when his character develops, softens, and becomes more human - does not claim our full sympathy.

Dallas Buyers Club Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee; written by Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack; with Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare, Griffin Dunne, Steve Zahn

It would be true to say that “Dallas Buyers Club,” the new movie by French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (“C.R.A.Z.Y.,” “Café de Flore”), is a fairly conventional film that follows a fairly conventional formula: It tells the true story of a man who finds himself transformed by circumstances, which lead him toward a kind of redemption. However, the virtues of Vallee’s film make up for its shortcomings. The best thing about “Dallas Buyers Club” is its dryness. Despite its subject matter and the historical moment it deals with, the movie steers clear of sentimentality.

It feels as though “Dallas Buyers Club” was made in the image of its hero, who – even when his character develops, softens, and becomes more human – does not claim our full sympathy. He is still aggressive and blunt, and he does not turn from a sinner into a saint. The same is true of the movie itself: Even when it reaches those peak moments that might have flooded us with emotion, “Dallas Buyers Club” ultimately holds back.

The movie is set in 1985, when America was first becoming aware of the AIDS epidemic. Very few American films have dealt with the early years of the AIDS crisis; almost all of them – with the notable exception of Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia,” which is now 21 years old – were made on the independent margins of the film industry. “Dallas Buyers Club” also took a long time getting to the screen; the topic is apparently still uncomfortable. A decade passed before Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America” became Mike Nichols’ excellent television series, after earlier attempts to have the play adapted into a film – by Robert Altman, among others – all failed. Still, when a prestigious movie or television series does deal with the AIDS crisis, it often wins acclaim. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his lead role in “Philadelphia”; “Angels in America” won every possible television prize; and “Dallas Buyers Club” is now up for six Academy Awards. Many predict that Matthew 
McConaughey, its star, will win the Best Actor prize (having already received a Golden Globe for the same performance).

McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a homophobic electrician who rides rodeo bulls and lives a busy heterosexual life. In the wake of an accident, he learns that he is dying of advanced AIDS. After a period of denial – like most of America in those days, he was sure that only gay men got AIDS – he rebels against the experimental treatment offered by the hospital and decides to fight the disease in his own way. He becomes even more determined after learning that the experimental drug used in those days, AZT, does more damage than good. Traveling to Mexico, he purchases alternative medication and food supplements and smuggles them into the U.S. Woodroof then turns his smuggling into a business and establishes a club whose members pay a monthly fee in exchange for the medication he supplies. His project – opposed by every possible medical organization in America – receives help from two people he met during his hospital stay: Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), a doctor, and Rayon (Jared Leto), 
a transsexual AIDS patient.

What makes “Dallas Buyers Club” a good film, among other things, is the fact that it does not romanticize either Ron’s changing attitude toward homosexuals (his old friends, meanwhile, want nothing to do with him) or his motivations. Ron is no altruist; he is a wheeler-dealer who uses his predicament to start a business and begins to see gays differently only as a result of this venture. One of the movie’s wittier aspects is that Ron naturally follows the path laid down by the capitalist system. With death at his heels (and the heels of his customers), he becomes a businessman, traveling around the world so that both he and his business may survive. And like many capitalist enterprises documented over history, his work becomes a kind of protest against the establishment, whose early confrontation with the AIDS crisis is presented as being focused more on bureaucracy than on saving lives. This is an establishment without compassion, but “Dallas Buyers Club” does not try to present Ron’s work as the alternative to it. The times called not for compassion but for action, and the movie’s flawlessly chosen dryness of tone emphasizes that.

McConaughey indeed does excellent work. What makes him impressive is not the considerable amount of weight he lost for the part – although this does attest to his efforts to move beyond his previous status as eye candy – but rather the way his performance complements everything Vallee tries to do, and not to do, in the movie. It is full of defiant energy against both the establishment and the disease itself, and the changes his character undergoes are presented to us with subtle accuracy, without becoming a dramatic or emotional manipulation.

All this is not to say that “Dallas Buyers Club” lacks emotion; but the emotion it does contain comes from the right sources, without seeming to be in the service of an agenda. It is actually the dryness of historical fact that gives the film its emotion, as seen in one of the most gentle scenes, where Rayon hugs Ron and the latter, after hesitating, ends up placing one hand on the back of his dying partner.