“Dallas Buyers Club” tells the story of Ron Woodruff, the AIDS-diagnosed Texas electrician who, in the mid-1980s, fought the big guns for the right to obtain non-FDA-approved drugs he deemed essential to his survival.
An irresistible story and powerful performances keep the action engrossing and characters entertaining in this David-and-Goliath drama as it details Woodruff’s legal battles, his interactions with the gay community and the waning of his homophobia.
But a safe and conventional approach prevents the film from having the powerful impact its subject demands.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, from a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, the drama transpires deep in the heart of cowboyville in the early days of AIDS.
As in “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave” and “All Is Lost,” the survival instinct drives its central character, although in this case, there initially seems little to root for.
Matthew McConaughey plays Woodruff, depicted as a boozing, gambling, womanizing, homophobic electrician and bull rider given 30 days to live after a workplace accident results in a hospital blood test that reveals he is HIV-positive.
Ron educates himself about available treatment and illegally obtains AZT. Next, he visits a defrocked doctor in Mexico who reports encouraging results from a combination therapy involving antiviral medicines, vitamins and proteins.
Soon, the enterprising Ron is globe-trotting to acquire banned-at-home drugs — for his own use and to sell to others. These quests, during which he sometimes dons disguises, raise the suspicions of border and drug officials.
To dodge the law, Ron creates a buyers club — an operation through which he can dispense medication to sick people who have paid him a membership fee.
What brings out his humanity are his interactions with his unlikely business partner, a transsexual woman, addict and fellow AIDS patient named Rayon (Jared Leto).
The thriving club ruffles the pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and doctors who favor the use of officially approved treatments like AZT, and there are attempts to shut Ron’s club down.
For certain, “Dallas Buyers Club” is an appealing American story about a flawed but striving underdog breaking rules that may be killing people. And Vallee, in a welcome about-face from his mild “Young Victoria,” tells it dynamically. The movie also succeeds as a reminder of the government’s dismal early response to the AIDS crisis.
McConaughey brings Woodruff to life as an electrifying blend of survival instinct, enterprise and dubious but impressively determined motivation, all with a charm.
Yet beneath the voltage is a play-it-safe affair, too feel-good for a story about people with AIDS in 1985. It lacks essential moments of quiet desperation. Its hero treatment of its protagonist, which includes a screenwriter-fabricated bull-ride triumph with a mythic tinge, overdoes it for a man whose aims were often largely selfish.
The supporting characters are composites who one-dimensionally suggest good or evil — sympathetic doctor Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) and her villainous pro-FDA colleague (Denis O’Hare), for starters.
Rayon, while played with nuance and grace by Leto (who, like McConaughey, underwent a well-publicized physical transformation to portray his emaciated character) spells tragic drag queen from square one.
For a superior look at the battle to bring about effective AIDS treatment, see the recent documentary “How to Survive a Plague.”
Dallas Buyers Club
two and a half stars
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare
Written by Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Running time 1 hour, 57 minutes