- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
The way “Dallas Buyers Club” tells it, Ron Woodroof was a man’s man, dadgumit.
A hard-partyin’, bull-ridin’ Dallas good ol’ boy who loved booze, drugs and women in whatever order he could get his hands on them, Woodruff surprisingly found himself diagnosed with HIV in 1986. “I ain’t no (expletive rhyming with “maggot”),” this deeply unpleasant man bellows.
Given about a month to live, Woodroof, played with charisma by an emaciated Matthew McConaughey, is furious he can’t get into the AZT trial. Eve Saks, a Dallas doctor, played by Jennifer Garner, is sympathetic, but her hands are tied. (She eventually becomes a strong ally, but you probably saw that coming.)
Given that AIDS is still thought of as something that only gays get, Woodroof’s friends shun him almost immediately, but he refuses to write himself off. He first bribes a janitor to get AZT, then condemns the drug as poison after it nearly kills him.
After consulting with a professionally excommunicated doctor (an unrecognizable Griffin Dunne) in a dank Mexican clinic, Woodroof, who knows a market when he sees it, starts smuggling various non-FDA-approved drugs into the United States.
Woodroof sets up the titular club where those with the virus could get treatments off the proverbial books — patients are “given” the drugs for free after a $400 membership fee.
Then again, ol’ Ron’s little black book isn’t exactly teaming with HIV-positive folks, so he teams up with a transsexual prostitute named Rayon (Jared Leto) to find a customer base.
Based on his heart-breaking performance, nobody in the history of cinema, theater or the dramatic arts in general has ever wanted to play a transsexual prostitute more than Jared Leto wanted to play a transsexual prostitute. Rayon is campy and sad and sweet and tragic, and Leto does a tremendous job.
It’s a fascinating, important and often very moving story. But “Dallas Buyers Club,” helmed by French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée from a script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, is still a biographical film. Such movies are inherently compromised ventures and force narratives that may not have a dramatic arc — or may feature competing agendas — into one large story. Here, the movie runs into problems.
Is “Dallas Buyers Club” the story of one man’s fight against the FDA’s drug approval process and lack of political will (embodied by a by-the-book Michael O’Neill)?
Is it the story of a homophobe’s redemption thanks to the friendship of a transsexual prostitute? Was the Dallas community of people with AIDS really this shunned and atomized in the late 1980s? Where did Woodroof’s club fit in with other such organizations? How much of what we are seeing in “Dallas Buyers Club” is fact, and how much have those facts been nipped and tucked for the screen?
Is it fair to expect the movie to be all of these things? Probably not. And McConaughey and Leto are hypnotic to watch, and none of the above should take away from Woodroof’s accomplishment.
But one chooses the difficulty of one’s dive, and Vallée has chosen a very difficult one indeed. The story of AIDS in the United States, especially in the 1980s, is enormously complicated, fraught with sadness, rage, political theater and moral panic.
There is some of that in “Dallas Buyers Club,” but it’s impossible to know where the real lives of those involved begin or end. This is not history, but a story.