'Dallas Buyers Club' Review: The AIDS Crisis Gone Country

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto play victims of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

 Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof in a scene from "Dallas Buyers Club."
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To explore the American AIDS crisis – the epidemic that ravaged the gay community, particularly in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, in the 1980s – "Dallas Buyers Club" picks a strange hero, albeit one based on real life. Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a rude, hard living, bull-riding Texas electrician, who responds to news that he has contracted HIV and has 30 days to live by hurling slurs like "I'm no homo!" at the doctors trying to help him. In short, he's a man's man – or at least a regressive, heteronormative construction of one – despite his spindly, gaunt figure. He's also very tough to root for, at least at first. More problematic is the premise of examining a national catastrophe deeply rooted in American homophobia from the perspective of a straight man – a viciously bigoted one, no less – who, unlike the urban gay men who were routinely losing friends to the virus, couldn't have cared less about the disease until it struck him.

"Dallas Buyers Club" finds its antidote to these weaknesses through the character of Rayon (Jared Leto), a feisty, fussed up, transgender HIV sufferer that Ron meets in the hospital. Due to the dire circumstances – or maybe simply because Rayon can beat Ron in poker – Ron lets Rayon teach him to let go of some of his prejudices. It is in their relationship that "Dallas Buyers Club" find its heart.

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At first Ron is determined to go it alone with his diagnosis, which soon evolves into full-blown AIDS. "I prefer to die with my boots on," Ron tells his doctor (Denis O'Hare), rather than succumb to the disease under hospital watch and with the kindness of a morphine drip.

Ron manages to get his hands on some AZT, a supposed wonder drug that suppresses the virus in its trial phases. But when that well runs dry, he looks south of the border, finding a khaki-shorts-wearing pseudo doctor (Griffin Dunne), who prescribes his own cocktail of "nontoxic" proteins, vitamins and drugs not approved in the U.S. Ever the hustler, Ron sees a capitalistic opportunity, and starts trafficking the drugs to Texas – where patients in the AZT trial are seeing only mixed results. He cashes in on a "buyers club" model, selling $400 memberships that provide access to Ron's pharmaceutical treasure trove.

He soon loops Rayon in his operation, still too ill at ease with the gay community to cultivate a customer base himself. They're an amusing, odd couple. Their playful barbs secure the film's otherwise tricky comedic tone. That Rayon will soften Ron's views and make him a generally more compassionate person is written on the walls of his motel buyers club office (which the happy homemaker Rayon repaints in the color "cranberry mocha"). But that doesn't make it any less moving.

The bully that thus emerges is the FDA, which the film suggests is pushing the questionable AZT and blocking Ron's rival methods under pressure from the pharmaceutical industry. A seemingly heartless DEA agent (Michael O'Neill) is a stand-in for the big, bad government. Even the kind nurse Eva (Jennifer Garner) who takes pity on Ron and his extralegal operation gets pushed around by the feds.

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The political claims the film makes are questionable. The Ronald Reagan's federal government certainly did not treat the crisis with the gravity it deserved, but "Dallas Buyers Club" sensationalizes this reality. The AZT Ron and his voodoo doctor characterize as a lethal poison was eventually found to be effective using the proper dosage, and the film quietly admits this in its epilogue. But one bathroom-stall heart attack aside (which Ron survives with as much you-get-'em-cowboy grit as ever), "Dallas Buyers Club" mocks the danger in trusting Ron's weakly tested methods.

These issues don't take away from the human sentiments of "Dallas Buyers Club," particularly those between Ron and Rayon. Ron's full evolution to charitable medicine man comes late in the film, but even his ability to treat his buyers club customers as worthy humans is a transformation worth watching – largely wrought by the affection he finds for Rayon.