There's been a lot of movies about survival in 2013. In All is Lost Robert Redford was trying to survive on an open sea. In Captain Phillips Tom Hanks was abducted by Somali pirates, who were hoping for ransom. In Gravity Sandra Bullock was floating in space and desperately looking for ways to return to Earth. In 12 Years a Slave Solomon Northup had to endure the terrors of slavery in order to stay alive. Nature, greed, space, hatred. All as relentless and vicious as a disease. But at this time - 1985, in this place - Dallas - this disease was also something those four things weren't - unbeatable.
30 days to live. That's the diagnosis an ordinary guy, Ron Woodroof, gets when he is admitted to hospital after passing out and hearing ringing in his ears. His first response is that he is not a 'faggot'. But after Ron does some research he realizes he probably caught the virus while enjoying unprotected sex with many different women. Ron realizes he really is sick and there is no cure. But he refuses to give up.
Ron looks for answers and help on his own - he finds out there are drugs out there that are far more effective than what people with HIV are given in hospitals. During one of his hospital visits he meets transgender HIV patient Rayon, who in spite of Ron's aggressive an homophobic remarks, shows him kindness.
Ron decides to smuggle the effective drugs to US and treat himself as well as others - sure, for a fee, as his main concern, at least at first, isn't being a good Samaritan. So he starts a club and makes Rayon his business partner. The idea of a club is you have to pay to join but then the drugs are free. Because of the drugs being unapproved and the distribution of them being illegal, pretty soon soulless FDA and the doctors start making things even more difficult for Ron.
As with the most incredibly moving stories, the movie is based on real events. Ron Woodroof and Dallas Buyers Club really existed. A month before Ron died screenwriter Craig Borten interviewed him to create the screenplay. Borten recorded many hours of interviews with Woodroof and had access to his personal journals. Then he attempted to attract interest in making the film in the mid 1990s, with Dennis Hopper to direct and Woody Harrelson as Woodroof, but the film was unable to secure financial backing.
In the late 1990s Marc Forster was approached to direct and Brad Pitt was set to play the role of Ron and then in 2008 director Craig Gillespie and Ryan Gosling were in talks with the producers until Jean-Marc Vallée and Matthew McConaughey signed up.Woodroof's sister was reportedly pleased with the casting of McConaughey because he had a similar swagger and personality; she had shown concern when Pitt was attached, due to his physique, and Gosling, because of his personality. I'm glad the part went to Matthew - others considered are fine actors but none of them has his effortless charm.
McConaughey is the real star of the show here, apart from Woodroof himself, the man who literally cheated death for many years and managed to beat the odds. McConaughey helped get this movie made and his commitment to the part is quite astonishing. He lost 47 pounds for this film and it's quite horrific how different he looks here. The guy we always saw in fine suits or showing off his bare muscular chest in romantic comedies, not only became this gaunt looking character he is playing but also, over the last 5 years, a damn fine and daring actor.
Normally I don't fall for this kind of stuff. Actors putting themselves through hell, losing outrageous amounts of weight, shaving their heads, wearing make up that makes them look awful. For me it's the performance that counts. It's the story that counts. I don't really have respect for multiple shenanigans Christian Bale has been doing over the years (remember when he couldn't get nominated for Oscar no matter how many worms he ate and how many pounds he lost?), because they are quite frankly distracting and take you away from this movie. It actually makes it more difficult for me to be impressed with performance and disregard all those attention seeking details.
The reason why all those drastic transformation works here is because of hugely entertaining script that is so gripping it doesn't really give you time to register just how much McConaughey and Leto sacrificed to play these people. Another thing I appreciated is that unlike in films like The Machinist, the camera doesn't masochistically linger on characters' skinny, ill bodies. It's not gratuitous Oscar baiting - it's simply acting and becoming the characters
And then there is the character of Ron himself. This is such a great character - I hate homophobia so damn much but it was impossible for me to dislike Ron. Sure, he was an asshole to those people but you know what? At least he was honest. If you had those remarks he made mixed with him killing or beating these people it would be awful. But Ron helped them. He kept them alive. The script doesn't make the moronical decision to have Ron change his opinion - he is still disgusted by the gay people but he also understands they are in this battle together and they have to unite.
There are two really lovely moments in the movie, showing that unity, that truly moved me - the first one is when Ron and Rayon are shopping and one of Ron's old buddies refuses to shake Rayon's hand. Ron grabs his old friend and twists his hand telling him to 'shake his hand' (there seem to be a lot of cry babies having issue with Ron referring to Rayon as a male not female - dry your tears and use your brain, that's my advice to these people). Then there is the hug scene. It's not about gender, sexuality, beliefs. It's about a fight these two souls share.
The relationship between Ron and Rayon is handled in such a realistic and touching way. You really see these two forming a bond, working together and caring about each other, in their own, unique ways. This also provides a lot of humorous situations - such as Rayon adding pictures of guys to Ron's display of images he masturbates to and the whole 'cranberry mocha' conversation.
As much as I did love the character of Ron, I wish Rayon was written a bit better. He is not based on a real person, but several people Ron worked with. I don't understand why the writers didn't take this opportunity to flesh out his character a little more. His pivotal scene, in which he talks to his father and asks him for money to repay Ron for his kindness, is very good but much too short. I felt like that scene was a missed opportunity to show Rayon's background. I don't think Jared Leto's work here merits an Oscar, which he will get for this, because of the writing and the fact this could have been such better written character, but he was really great in the role.
Another underwritten character is doctor Eve, sweet and lovely woman who is very compassionate towards her patients unlike the boss who only cares about clinical trials. Eve is essentially a plot device - she sits, drinks wine and watches TV where they talk about what people of AIDS are protesting against and FDA deals.
Eve is played by Jennifer Garner and I thought it's a real shame how little she has to do, because this could have been such a good character and performance. There is a truly lovely date scene between Ron and Eve, but McConaughey is given such great material in this moment that Garner is essentially coming off like a blank canvas of which his brilliance bounces off. Still, I thought Garner did very well. I have no idea what people's problem is with her delivery of "He was my friend too!" line - I thought it was a lovely, honest and powerful moment.
With all those flaws the script is still something to praise here. The fact that the film deals with such awful things and manages to stay funny, lively and uplifting is incredible. There are all those light and humorous scenes like Ron pretending to be a priest as well as his witty and funny lines - I couldn't even feel bad when I laughed at his 'look after this fucking monkey' line which was him referring to Rayon.
Dallas Buyers Club is such an entertaining and inspiring ride - it's not your usual movie about HIV and dying. Featuring fantastic performance from McConaughey, amazing story and uplifting tone, the film can bring you to tears but it won't break your heart. It will fill it with a sense of hope.
There are so many people who would give up after hearing they have days left to live. But not Ron. He kept fighting. He kept living.
Just keep living.
(Dallas Buyers Club, dir. Jean-Marc Vallé, 2013, 117 min.)