To be sure, Dallas Buyers Club is not the title of a new film about a Texas-based wholesale food-and-clothing outlet. Also to be sure, Dallas Buyers Club likely will not be smashing box office records. That is because this fact-based drama centers on Ron Woodroof, played by Matthew McConaughey, a man who in the film’s opening scenes is as likable as a sleazy creep who smiles at you with mock sincerity while picking your pocket. Woodroof is a reckless, cocaine-snorting, sex-obsessed hustler. But then, he is given what amounts to a death sentence. He learns that he is HIV-positive and is told by a doctor, “You have 30 days left, so put your affairs in order.”
The year is 1985, precious little is known about AIDS by the American mainstream and so, not surprisingly, Woodroof finds himself ostracized by his friends. But once he gets over his deep denial of his plight, he refuses to meekly accept his death sentence and transforms himself into an AIDS activist. He begins researching the disease and its effect on the body. He also sheds himself of his homophobia-- Woodroof is very heterosexual, in a Texas redneck sort of way-- and he comes to understand what he must do to extend his life. This leads to his becoming involved in seeking out alternative treatments and smuggling into the U.S. non-FDA-approved drugs, not just for himself but for use by other AIDS patients.
Dallas Buyers Club does a good job of capturing a time-- early on in the AIDS crisis-- where those afflicted were collectively damned in America and had to struggle against an uncaring and insensitive bureaucracy just to acquire the medicines that would help them cope with the disease. But the film also is worth seeing for its performances. Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner are standouts in supporting roles as, respectively, an HIV-positive drag queen who is befriended by Woodroof and a sympathetic doctor who assists him. Above all, Dallas Buyers Club works so well because of Matthew McConaughey’s constant presence and vivid performance. He is not just an actor in makeup, with some added special effects allowing him to look the part of a man afflicted with a deadly disease. McConaughey reportedly shed between 35 and 50 pounds to play Woodroof, and this weight loss leaves him barely recognizable.
McConaughey is not the first actor to lose or gain many pounds for their craft. Back in 2004, Christian Bale reportedly lost over 60 pounds to play a deeply troubled man who hadn’t slept in a year in The Machinist. You may recall that Robert De Niro gained 60 pounds to play the older Jake La Motta in 1980’s Raging Bull and Vincent D’Onofrio added 70 pounds when cast as a chunky Vietnam-era marine recruit in 1987’s Full Metal Jacket.
In any case, beyond McConaughey’s jarring presence and despite its uncomfortable subject matter, Dallas Buyers Club is a potent, poignant drama about self-esteem and tolerance, and the importance of being tough and unwavering in a less-than-compassionate world.