Two of the year’s most captivating performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto combine with a screenplay that juggles a number of difficult themes to make Dallas Buyers Club one of the year’s best movies. McConaughey is Ron Woodroof, a homophobic hellraiser, bull rider, and oil-field electrician who’s given 30 days to live. He has AIDS, but it takes him awhile to admit it. Leto is Rayon, a transgender HIV patient who begets empathy every moment he’s on screen. Together, the unlikely pair form a business partnership in which Woodroof supplies illegal/unapproved drugs for the customers/members Rayon brings to their eponymous endeavor. Together, McConaughey and Leto make the film.
Even after losing 50 and 30 pounds, respectively, the pair paint the screen with undeniable charisma. Their situation brings pathos and their actions create meaning, and it’s the interplay of these two dynamics that makes the film so engaging. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s script seems to have lost as much weight, relying on short, punctual scenes to tell a particularly expansive story in under two hours. Yet the film somehow avoids struggling with coherence or pacing. In fact, it’s one of its stronger assets.
Immediately after his diagnosis, title cards are used to orient us in Woodroof’s life: DAY 1, DAY 2, DAY 3, etc. The early days are the longest, both in scene length and quantity. We pay particular attention to the way Woodroof spends his time in them, and we consider what it must be like to have such a short lease on life. But as the days pass, Woodroof’s health begins to improve. Tasked with the responsibilities of his new enterprise, he finds new purpose and drive. And, quite subtly, time begins to move more rapidly. Scenes wane to a page or less as the narrative leaps forward. And by the time a brazen “6 MONTHS LATER” title card appears on screen, it’s not merely a device to move the plot along. It’s an opportunity to contemplate the very nature of time and our perception of its passing.
Realizing he’s working with a deft screenplay and incredible performers, French director Jean-Marc Vallée stays the hell out of the way for most of Dallas Buyers Club (an attribute often underappreciated by film critics). His handheld camera looks sloppy and careless in some scenes, yet well-blocked in others; and it almost always lends to the frenetic nature of the Woodroof character. Also of note is way Vallée and co-editor Martin Penza have cut together one of the film’s more grandiose sequences. Despite a turgid display of butterflies, it hauntingly conveys tragedy and loss when Woodroof returns to the hospital only to find an empty bed. As charming and charismatic as Leto’s Rayon was on screen, we don’t expect him to have passed. But he’s gone, and it feels too soon.
Dallas Buyers Club is a special film, particularly for the way it addresses sexuality, the AIDS epidemic, the political morality of the pharmaceutical industry and its regulatory environment, and the sheer act of living and loving in the face of mortality—all difficult, sensitive themes seldom addressed in the movies today, and rarely as pervasive as they are here. Though one could criticize the film for failing to examine any of these issues in depth, the mere act of raising and juggling them all without feeling the slightest bit forced (perhaps a result of the enchanting performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto) is a feat in itself. And in the end, this is Woodroof’s story. Part character study, part ode to a man who faced life as if it were just another bull, Dallas Buyers Club owes much of its success to the real Ron Woodroof.