'Dallas Buyers Club': Cowboy bucks 6-month HIV death sentence
It's unlikely that business schools will be teaching the Ron Woodroof Plan anytime soon, but as entrepreneurial success stories go, it's not bad: The doctors tell you you have 30 days to live, and you set out to prove them wrong - becoming a cash-rich drug dispenser and patients'-rights advocate in the process.
That's one way to look at Dallas Buyers Club, the "inspired by true events" tale of a party-hardy Texas cowboy and self-employed electrician who, in 1985, contracted the AIDS virus. This news came as a double shock to the aggressively homophobic Woodroof. He was going to be dead in a month, and he had the "gay disease." Something's not right with this picture.
But just about everything is right with Dallas Buyers Club, beginning with Matthew McConaughey's literally transformative portrayal. You've read the stories, seen the photographs: The actor lost close to 40 pounds to play Woodroof - and he's a chilling sight. Even as the film begins, when Woodroof is ostensibly healthy, scrapping around behind the bleachers in a clinch with not one, but two, rodeo groupies, he's not looking so great. By the time he is diagnosed, he's a scarecrow, and he turns progressively more gaunt and ghostly as the story goes on.
But he never loses the fire in his eyes. Woodroof lived for seven years following that initial prognosis, hustling and scamming and looking to keep himself alive, and then setting up a thriving, one-stop shopping center for antiviral meds, vitamin and protein cocktails, and non-FDA-approved treatments for the HIV-positive community.
McConaughey's performance isn't just about the weight loss. It's about gaining compassion, even wisdom, and it's awesome.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée from a crackerjack script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club isn't exactly a feel-good movie, but Woodroof proves to be such a character - crude, lewd, a bigot, a high school dropout, and then a guy who throws himself into medical textbooks and research papers with a scholar's elan - that you can't help but love him.
Shunned by his drinking buddies and cohorts, Woodroof begins to understand the stigma attached to AIDS. In the hospital, he meets Rayon (Jared Leto, wild and wickedly funny), a transsexual also being treated for AIDS-related illness. A wary Woodroof calls Rayon "Mister Man." They play cards. They talk. An oddball friendship is born - a friendship that harks back to that of another Texan, Joe Buck, and the squirrely street bum, Ratso Rizzo, he partners with in the late-'60s classic Midnight Cowboy.
Dallas Buyers Club is a movie about an improbable hero, fighting the medical establishment, fighting the FDA, fighting for his life. He's a con artist, a snake-charmer, working the angles with a wily grin. But he's also on a journey of self-discovery, learning to embrace humanity in all its shapes and sizes, colors and proclivities.
His Stetson looks too big on his head, his face is bruised, his arms are as skinny as poles, but the Ron Woodroof of Dallas Buyers Club proves himself to be a big, bighearted buckaroo.
Dallas Buyers Club ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. With Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner. Distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, nudity, profanity, drugs, violence, adult themes)
Playing at: Ambler Theater, County Theater, Ritz East, Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ