Dallas Buyers Club opens with Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) at the rodeo in the mid-1980s. He’s taking bets on whether his buddy T.J. can last more than eight seconds on a bull. “You hear Rock Hudson was a cocksucker?” he asks his customers. “I read it in the paper,” he said, pointing to a nearby newspaper article about Hudson’s announcement that he had AIDS. When T.J. is thrown off after six seconds, Woodroof bolts, his patrons hot on his tail. He punches a cop – who happens to be an old friend – and gets driven off the scene and away from the angry mob.
You get a sense of the kind of guy Woodroof is in just a few scenes. One of these days, you think, Woodroof’s thieving, boozing, coking ways – not to mention unprotected sex with multiple and questionable partners – will catch up to him.
When he wakes up in a hospital and two doctors (Denis O’Hare and a sweet-as-ever Jennifer Garner) wearing surgical masks tell him he has AIDS and only a month left to live, Woodroof can’t believe it. “What did you say to me?” he asks. “I’m no faggot.”
Unsatisfied with his fate, he storms off angry, exclaiming that: “Ain’t nothing can kill Ron Woodroof in 30 days.”
This sort of abruptness and misinformation was common for the time, and throughout Dallas, Woodroof becomes an ally of the gay community in Dallas, especially after meeting Rayon (a tremendous Jared Leto), a transgender woman who helps Woodroof sell the medicine – treatments that were unapproved by the FDA at the time – he smuggles from Mexico and other countries. Based on the true story of Woodroof, who lived seven years longer than his doctors said he would, the film is best when Leto and McConaughey’s characters share the screen: their chemistry is evident, but it’s what Rayon and Woodroof mean to each other and how they help each other grow that is especially touching. The movie reminded me of Erin Brockovich – it’s weirdly feel-good and inspiring. Some of the snappy dialogue and montages are especially Soderberghesque, too. Woodroof is most feisty when facing off against the big bad FDA who he accuses of being in the pockets of pharmaceutical companies.
McConaughey is remarkable in Dallas, but don’t call it a career-redefining or career-reinventing turn. McConaughey has been on a hot streak since 2011, starring in Bernie (Richard Linklater), Killer Joe (William Friedkin), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh) and Mud, among some other good films – a noteworthy turnaround for the actor who led duds Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Failure to Launch and Fool’s Gold. He’ll also be in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, out Christmas Day, and HBO’s True Detective and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in 2014.
McConaughey, Leto and director Jean-Marc Vallée deserve every bit of praise that will be coming their way following the release of Dallas Buyers Club: another team may have turned the film into something unnecessarily sappy and preachy given the subject matter. Instead, the fast-paced and exciting drama features some of the best performances of the year.
Dallas Buyers Club opens Nov. 1.