Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Dallas Buyers Club is about a man who is told he will be dead in 30 days, and how he lives much longer than that out of orneriness, a willingness to gamble, and a determination to do things his way. "I'm gonna die with my boots on," he says after signing himself out of a hospital. He's a rough guy, a rodeo rider, and a bit of an ass. When being pursued by an angry mob he owes money to, he willingly lets a cop beat him up and haul him away in a squad car  rather than deal with his debts. Then, through bloody teeth, he mocks the cop.

Matthew McConaughey plays this angry, dying character, based on the real-life Ron Woodroof who learned in 1985 that he had AIDS.  This is the performance of a lifetime, with  McConaughey drawing from the usual charismatic southerners he's played in the past but adding shades of desperation and meanness that make the character compelling.

McConaughey underwent a horrific transformation for the role, losing around 50 pounds to look like an emaciated AIDS sufferer. Particularly in the early scenes, McConaughey looks like death dragged through an alley, propped up only by cocaine and adrenaline.  Yet, even as he coughs and seems on the verge of falling, no one around him notices that he's sick. In fact, nearly everyone in his circle seems too drunk or stupid to notice anything. Perhaps they thought Woodroof's hard-partying lifestyle had worn him down - the day after he's diagnosed with HIV he's back in his trailer, partying with a couple of bimbos. It was an empty, reckless life. AIDS gave Woodroof purpose.

A lesser movie would show Woodroof learning to love everyone, and putting aside his old prejudices, but Dallas Buyers Club is smarter than that. Woodroof remains as much of a homophobic shitkicker  as he'd previously been, but he has a mission: to learn about AIDS, and expose the flaws in the AMA. He goes into business selling AIDS drugs, and uses whatever strength he has left to fight the pharmaceutical companies, the AMA, FDA, CIA and the IRS. He travels the world trying to find the most recent AIDS drugs, even disguising himself as a priest to smuggle drugs back into the United States. At one point in the film Woodroof says he was once an electrician, and that he enjoyed opening things up and learning how they worked. I imagine it's that same curiosity that helped him develop his encyclopedic knowledge of the pandemic and of medicines. Woodroof served as a consultant on the screenplay, contributing several hours of taped interviews before his death. I get the impression he was like one of those good ol' boys you run into in country music circles, not especially educated, but wily, with a magnificent bullshit detector.

Jared Leto is exceptional as Rayon, a transvestite who goes into business with Woodroof. They're an odd couple, one of the great screen pairings of the year. One of the reasons Jean-Marc Vallee's film  works so well is because Woodroof never entirely lets his guard down around Rayon. Rayon and Woodruf eventually become close, and even share an embrace, but you wouldn't want Woodroof to soften up too much, because it's his stubbornness that helps him survive.

At times Dallas Buyers Club reminded me of The Wrestler.  In both films, an actor underwent a physical transformation to play characters battling health problems. Both characters were irresponsible, and self-destructive. Neither seemed to have any loved ones or close friendships. In The Wrestler, Randy the Ram befriended a kindly stripper. In Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof befriends a kindly female doctor. Both Randy and Woodroof are locked out of their homes at one point. Randy took a lot of grief from people when he took a job at a supermarket; Woodroof is constantly in trouble with authorities, and finds that his friends turn away from him once he's diagnosed. The directors of each film also use a similar sound cue, a kind of high pitched buzzing, that indicates things are about to turn bad for the main characters.

Finally, Randy simply wants to get back in the ring and wrestle, because that's what he knows best. At the end of Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof gets back in the bullring. Both films end with a tableau, their main characters frozen in time.

Obviously, the two movies are very different in tone and style. Randy, for instance, seemed beaten by his problems, while Woodroof turns his AIDS battle into a barroom brawl. Still, I kept seeing parallels. Is one film better than the other? No. Both are excellent. We don't know what happened to Randy the Ram, although it looked like he died, diving from the top rope into oblivion. We do know that Ron Woodroof died of AIDS. We also know from this movie that he turned out to be a hell of a man.

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