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Dallas Buyers Club

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club"

Heal Thyself

Dallas Buyers Club

Over the years I have said some mean things about Matthew McConaughey, who always struck me as creepy in standard issue rom-coms and hero roles. I may sometimes have expressed this unkindly but I don’t think I was wrong—he’s really not suited to be a conventional leading man. And the proof of that is the way he’s bloomed since he started taking edgier roles, beginning with The Lincoln Lawyer and developing in smaller films like Bernie, Mud, and Killer Joe.

McConaughey is just about the whole show in Dallas Buyers Club, and it’s a performance that, if such is your measure of quality, is bound to be on any number of ballots this coming awards season.

The film is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, who in 1985 was no one’s idea of a hero. A Texas oilfield electrician who also did rodeo work, he’s first glimpsed looking like little more than an animal himself, having sex behind the stalls of a bull pen. Scrawnily unattractive, he probably puts his appearance down to his diet of cigarettes, cocaine, and alcohol.

But when a workplace accident lands him in the hospital, doctors discover that he is dying of AIDS. As one puts it through his breathing mask, “You have 30 days to put your affairs in order.” The inability of the medical community to deal with hard situations is a prominent theme of the film: Knowing of AIDS only as “that Rock cocksucking Hudson bullshit?”, Woodroof is offered no useful information aside from a handful of pamphlets.

But if always looking out for number one is a poor trait in a friend, it can be a key to self-preservation. Once he accepts his situation, Woodroof studies up and learns that AZT trials are being done in his area. Ignoring doctors who tell him that all he can do is join a study where he might only get a placebo, he bribes an orderly to get the pills. Self-medicating nearly kills him, so he finds a Mexican doctor (Griffin Dunne) who has an alternative therapy that works for him.

Seeing a way to kill two birds with one stone, Woodroof smuggles the treatment—which has not been approved by the FDA—into the US and starts selling it to desperate gay men under the legal fiction of a “club”: Monthly membership is $400, but the drugs are free. This pays for his own drugs and nets him a tidy profit as well, as long as he can keep getting supplies, a task that takes him as far as Israel and Japan.

It goes well for awhile, but he’s up against two very powerful opponents: the medical community, which believes that research must be done properly and methodically even if that means slowly; and drug companies that are motivated by profit, their appetites whetted by $10,000 monthly bills for AZT therapy.

Dallas Buyers Club may be somewhat reductive in making the issues this blunt, but it’s hard to argue that Big Pharma acts with the public welfare foremost in mind. As effective as it is as a history lesson, it’s this issue that makes the film unfortunately current.

It’s a story that you probably couldn’t make uninteresting, but the script is admirable both for the obvious moments it avoids (you can’t point to a particular moment in the film when Woodroof crosses the line from avarice to empathy for his customers) as well as the subtle ones it creates. My favorite one is a scene where he takes his doctor to dinner and gives her, instead of flowers, a painting of flowers made by his mother. It takes a few moments to realize that giving away things he cares about is something that a person looking toward the end of his life does, and it’s very touching.

Watch the trailer for Dallas Buyers Club

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