Even with six weeks to go, it's safe to say 2013 is the best in film since 2003. Two offerings opening in Memphis this week — Dallas Buyers Club and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire — continue that trend.
Dallas Buyers Club is a true story based on the life and particulars of death of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texas bull rider who contracted the AIDS virus in the mid-1980s. The film starts in 1985. Rock Hudson is in the newspapers for having the deadly disease culturally thought of as a homosexual problem.
After an accident at work, Woodroof is taken to the hospital. The usual tests are run, but they come back with unusual results: He has tested positive for HIV. He doesn't believe Drs. Saks and Sevard (Jennifer Garner at her most compassionate and Denis O'Hare), much less their prognosis that he has a month to live. "There ain't nothing out there that can kill fucking Ron Woodruff in 30 days," he says.
More than anything, Woodroof struggles with the news because he is not gay, as he tells everyone who knows his diagnosis. This usually comes out in some variation on, "I ain't no faggot, motherfucker." His temperament is so stabby because he's a Texas cowboy, the apex of aggressive masculinity, who, we see through several early cock-and-bull scenes, rides the rodeo for fun, has a lot of sex with women, and can hold his liquor (and cocaine).
The first act follows Woodroof for those 30 days he's been sentenced to, during which he loses all his friends, fights to be legitimately treated by the health-care industry, gives up and illegally procures the new drug AZT from a hospital orderly, and goes to Mexico to be treated by an expatriate physician, Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne).
There, the doc tells Woodroof AZT is toxic and is killing him. Vass prescribes instead a battery of meds and dietary supplements not approved by the FDA but in common use elsewhere in the world. Woodroof gets better — not cured, of course, but not at death's door. And he hatches a plot with Vass to get the medicine into the hands of other AIDS victims back home.
With the help of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman with AIDS, Woodroof organizes the Dallas Buyers Club, selling not drugs but memberships to a plan that consequently includes medicine. He makes an enemy of Sevard, whose patients are leaving traditional medical routes for the buyers club, and ultimately the FDA. Saks is in the moral middle ground. She believes in science but also wants health care to be more about cures than profit.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée tells the story with appreciated economy. The script (by Craig Borten, who interviewed Woodroof years ago, and Melisa Wallack) contains a few cutesy missteps. ("Screw the FDA, I'm going to be DOA.") But Dallas Buyers Club is an exceptional film about living with severe illness, and considerably accessible considering the subject matter. The 80s must’ve sucked to live during as an adult.
Dallas Buyers Club's great success comes largely via McConaughey, who lost considerable weight for the part. McConaughey's Woodroof is skin-and-bones rancor with a Dale Earnhardt mustache. His irascible, slow acceptance of others and then himself comes through in his relationship with Rayon. The film doesn't overplay the odd-couple dynamic of the pair. Instead, it simmers, allowing the characters to get under each other's skin and convey warmth and goodwill in nontraditional ways. Leto, too, is fantastic. Both will be showered with awards-season accolades.
Dallas Buyers Club
Opens Friday, November 22nd
Ridgeway Cinema Grill