Dallas Buyers Club doesn't reinvent the wheel. It's a fairly straightforward account of the AIDS crisis early on, when patients had to take matters into their own hands to find treatments, in that second wave of people who didn't die immediately. It's a fairly conventional story of little guy takes on the big corporate/government machine, Silkwood or Erin Brockovich or Norma Rae plus incurable disease.
I haven't done a conventional film review in a while... and part of the reason, I realized just now, is it's a lot easier to feel compelled when dealing with something on the level of Dallas Buyers Club. It's a film to remind you that there's no to reinvent storytelling when the story is worth telling. And worth telling well.
Ron Woodruff was a colorful character, a rodeo cowboy and electrician who led a hard life and wound up with and HIV diagnosis in 1985. Disbelieving, he looked into the science, and investigated treatments. That led him first to AZT, then to Mexico and other, more experimental drugs - drugs which are now the basis of most AIDS treatments. Like a number of enterprising patients in the early days, he pioneered an outlaw approach to getting necessary drugs to patients in need - a Buyers Club that helped create the cashflow to go here the treatments could be found.
There are a lot of stories like Ron Woodruff's to be found in the history of AIDS and AIDS activism; it's safe to say that AIDS has, in many ways, transformed in the most fundamental ways the discussion we have around illness and treatment and health care. How we talk about life saving drugs, how we approach care for the most vulnerable, how we both value and question the medical establishment... before AIDS, this was a much different conversation.
The film is a beautiful, amazing, spare piece of storytelling. Woodruff is a colorful character, not in need of much embellishment. Jean-Marc Vallee has put together a remarkable narrative, one that doesn't insult an audience's intelligence, or condescend to the characters. These are real, flawed, desperate people. And desperation can lead people to do amazing things.
Matthew McConaughey has entered a remarkable phase of his career; there's a fearlessness to his acting lately that simply wasn't there before. It's not that he's taken roles which show no apologies for his sex symbol status (The Paperboy, Magic Mike) - it's that he's given these performances layers of unexpected depth and dimension. I haven't seen Mud, but I'm confident he's as good as people say. Here, he plays Ron Wooruff full out, no apologies, no regrets. Woodruff wasn't necessarily comfortable with the perception of HIV/AIDS as a "gay" disease, but he doesn't want to die, and he's got the decency to share what works with others.
Nor is McConaughey working in a vacuum - Jennifer Garner turns in some of her best work as Ron's supportive doctor, Jared Leto takes an even more fearless leap into playing the transgender woman Rayon, Ron's compatriot in building the Club. Even the thankless role of Ron's primary nemesis, the doctor who works within the establishment, gets a worthy portrayal from Denis O'Hare.
Vallee 's spareness in storytelling and shot composition cuts through a lot of the clutter that seems to turn up in movies these days, but he never loses sight of the urgency, the desperation, the simplest need to live. This, really, is what the eighties looked and felt like - that moment when you coudn't be gay and not just know about AIDS, but know about the drugs, the desperation, the frustrations. The death and loss was overwhelming... but beyond that lay the plight of the living. And that, somehow, was harder still.
It's hard for me to see a performance more worthy of an Oscar than McConaughey's (or Leto's for that matter, and probably Garner too). Dallas Buyers Club tells an important necessary story in a solid, compelling way. And really, that's what film is supposed to do, at its best.