Weak medicine

Dallas Buyers Club

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner

Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use

1 hr. 57 min.

In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic hit the U.S. like a terrorist bomb. Coming out of nowhere, it ravaged both gay and straight communities and left the medical profession with a dangerous disease that no one knew how to treat effectively.


Enter Dallas electrician and sometimes rodeo bull rider Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a homophobic skirt chaser who always assumed that AIDS was a faggot’s disease. As he came to learn, he was quite wrong.

French Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée presents his story on screen, and in the process pulls back the curtain to reveal the confusion and desperation that existed among patients and doctors during the time that we now identify as the AIDS crisis.

Woodroof was a most unlikely activist:  a heavy drinker, drug user and gambler, sexually ravenous, and with the personality of a badger. Then, after suffering an industrial accident at work, he wakes up in the hospital and gets a piece of unexpected news. He has AIDS. In fact, the disease is so far advanced his doctors only give him 30 days to live.

And that’s not the only bad news. Once his friends find out, his personal life becomes a living hell. Bar fights. Eviction from his trailer. A work crew that refuses to let him on site. Worst of all, his doctors won’t give him AZT, the only known medicine at the time that might prolong his life.

But Woodroof’s obnoxiousness turns into his best asset. Doing his own research, bribing a local janitor at his hospital, he figures out a way to get his hands on AZT and beat the system at its own game. When he travels to Mexico on a tip, he tracks down an American doctor whose license has been revoked: Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne) is doing frontline AIDS research in a small Mexican clinic.

After he fills Woodroof’s car with unapproved vitamins and drugs, Woodroof sneaks them across the border and discovers that they are much more effective than AZT. Then he comes up with another idea:  how to turn his newfound knowledge into a business. With the assistance of local transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto), he sells his stash (much to the displeasure of the FDA) to members of the local gay community and becomes an entrepreneur.

This movie suffers from a common malady that I call biopic syndrome. First, you can look up the ending before you ever watch the film. Two, the story is told squarely and chronologically. And three, it always pits the underdog against a common mass threat, usually the government.

So it goes with Dallas Buyers Club. It feels blockish and sometimes sags from its own predictability. Given director Vallée’s straightforward approach, I think this problem is inevitable. Pitting a legal bureaucracy against the little guy, the laborious details, important as they may be, are not always thrilling.

But the performances in this film keep the story from sinking too badly. McConaughey’s gaunt face and pitbull tactics raise the film’s energy level. Transvestite Leto is a welcome contrast to Woodroof’s pugnaciousness. Genteel, sensitive, willing to roll with Woodroof’s insults. Even Jennifer Garner as the doctor caught in the middle of Woodroof’s fight reminds us of the sassiness she displayed during her Alias years.

While the subject matter may be troublesome to some, the portrayal of this particular AIDS tragedy is sobering and thoughtfully told. Not quite on a par with its Oscar-winning predecessor Philadelphia, it still has some grit and spark that make it worth watching.

Dallas Buyers Club reminds us of how humans, caught tragically between death and life, survive in the worst of circumstances. Woodroof was like a badger backed in its hole; stubborn, tenacious. This lengthened his life by six years. It also saves this film from its own predictability.