The premise behind Dallas Buyers Club is truly unique, so it's remarkable how close the film comes to being a ho-hum, paint-by-numbers biopic. It tells the story of a homophobic Texan named Ron Woodroof who contracts HIV in 1985 after a lifetime of casual sex and recreational drug use, and his subsequent efforts to combat the federal government's red tape while delivering unapproved treatments to his fellow (mostly homosexual) patients. They haven't made many movies about this kinda stuff.
Doesn't matter much, though, when you follow a template that's been used a thousand times already. From Ron's leper-like dismissal from society to his encounter with a heart-of-gold transvestite companion, everything in the first act is predictable at best and depressingly lame at worst. Throw in some laughable dialogue ("Screw the FDA, I'm going to be DOA") and you've got a movie that's off to a rocky start.
Not to mention the acting; there's a stigma in the critical community attached to actors or actresses who try too hard in a particular role. This can include gaining (or losing) large amounts of weight, uglying themselves up, or portraying a character with a different sexual orientation. Robert Downey Jr's character in Tropic Thunder accurately summed this all up as "going full retard." And in Dallas Buyers Club, Jared Leto goes full tranny. He commits wholeheartedly to his part as Ron's AIDS-infcted assistant Rayon, and at times their relationship can be very touching. But even in his finest moments, he remains the guy from Panic Room in a dress, desperately craving your Oscar votes. Don't give in.
And Jennifer Garner is woefully miscast as the doctor who realizes her hospital's current AIDS treatments aren't doing enough to help sick patients. Her inclusion feels like a textbook case of studio notes: "Sure, we'll give you $5 million to make the Texan-with-AIDS biopic...if you bring us Ben Affleck's wife." According to the IMDB notes, Hilary Swank was originally cast in that role; I would've liked to see that version.
But luckily, there is Matthew McConaughey. His recent resume includes gems like Killer Joe, Mud, Bernie, Magic Mike, and now this. It's a far cry from his days as a rom-com lead, and one of the more pleasant career swings in recent memory. Either he doesn't give a fuck, or he suddenly gives a fuck. Regardless, his talents are no longer being wasted.
This movie doesn't work at all unless its Ron Woodroof displays the perfect mix of commitment, enthusiasm and desperation. His actions are fueled by the ticking clock hanging over his head; luckily, McConaughey has always specialized in reckless abandon. His rebirth as the head of the titular Buyers Club lights up the final two-thirds of the movie; as Ron starts doing something about his diagnosis, Dallas Buyers Club evolves beyond the cookie-cutter blueprint it had been following thus far.
As Ron sets up shop in Dallas and begins helping his fellow AIDS sufferers, his purpose (and the film's) becomes clear. At his lowest point, Woodroof is forced to accept people he previously despised. And in doing so, he both embraces their humanity and devotes the rest of his life to prolonging theirs. Getting sick is terrifying, but it's also the great equalizer. We can only do so much to prevent illness and death, and for some people it's the only way to true clarity. It's sort of uplifting to think that as we're about to lose everything, we're also free to make perhaps our biggest impact.
There's a lingering commentary throughout on the FDA's unsavory association with massive pharmaceutical corporations, but this isn't exactly the forum for such complaints. It's better served focusing on the people themselves; the film's finest scene comes when Woodroof and Rayon are shopping at the grocery store. They run into one of Ron's old companions (played ably by Herc from Friday Night Lights) and Woodroof physically forces the man to shake Rayon's hand. The look Leto gives McConaughey afterwards is the perfect mix of gratitude, respect and attraction; it's an understated summation of the world that Ron now inhabits. Like its main character, Dallas Buyers Club manages to pull it together a bit at the end.