© 2022 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Up To Date

Film Review: 'Dallas Buyers Club' Becomes A Haven For People With AIDS In The 1980s

Focus Features

In 1985, just a handful of years into the AIDS epidemic, if someone appeared gaunt, splotchy, and paper-thin, it was suspected that they had contracted HIV. Though gay men made up a large percentage of those infected, the virus was transmitted via body fluids like blood and semen - with no regards to sexual orientation. Still, any man who contracted HIV during that Age of Ignorance was branded a contagious homosexual. As was Ron Woodroof, the profligately heterosexual rodeo cowboy robustly played by Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club.

Woodroof is a lover, drinker, and a brawler who, after a home accident, discovers from a medical team (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner) that he is HIV-positive. Despite his emaciated body and persistent nausea, he insists the tests are wrong and lets loose a profane, homophobic rant to anyone within earshot that he is not, never has been "a faggot." He can almost be forgiven, though, as the country at that time consistently put AIDS patients in categories that conveniently fit their own sense of well-being.

The drug AZT was just starting trials and Woodroof learns from the Garner character that, should he be enrolled, there’s no guarantee he’d not be given a placebo. He resists that dice throw by stealing AZT through a handsomely paid hospital orderly. And when that stash runs out, he goes to Mexico to consult with a disbarred doctor (Griffin Dunne), coming home (disguised as a priest) with a trunk-full of proteins, vitamins, and medications not yet approved in the United States.

He learns gradually that he’s not alone (nor needs to be) in feeling trapped on the wrong end of an hourglass and starts to commiserate with the gay men he’s always hated. He establishes a “buyers club” at a local motel and, with an unexpected ally, an HIV-positive transgendered woman named Rayon (a passionately committed Jared Leto), is soon overseeing the drug regimens of hundreds of club “members.” Though he insists that he’s not dealing drugs but selling memberships, and that the drugs aren’t illegal, merely unapproved, the Federal Drug Administration becomes his enemy.

Energetically and creatively directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, the film has a few gaps in logic (like the source of Woodroof’s ceaselessly deep pockets) and it meets hurdles where the medical jargon is cumbersome or the history a bit wobbly. But McConaughey and Leto are to be commended for their sense of commitment to and embrace of Ron's and Rayon's character flaws (like their mutual drug use) and decimated physiques. Both actors lost over 40 pounds each on frames that weren’t all that meaty to begin with; Leto especially looks skeletal. By the conclusion, neither man is necessarily a hero, saint or martyr. But no one can say they didn’t try to help others stranded in the same sinking boat.


Up To Date Film
Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.