Life is messy. It’s chaotic. It doesn’t have much of a clear direction, and most people just kind of stumble forward and try to survive. When challenges arise, they’re faced with varying degrees of success, but something like closure is a lot harder to come by. Life doesn’t have act breaks, or chapter stops, or any of the things we use as signposts in narratives to help us shape the stories we tell ourselves. Over a long enough timeline, we can graft certain beats onto our lives and try to retroactively turn them into epic stories, but the truth is that we’re rarely in situations with definite starts and stops. Our stories are small and quietly observed, even the tragedies. Everything happens in increments.
Dallas Buyers Club is at its best when it lives up to this realization, and its worst when it forgets it. The film is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, a Texas man who was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1985 and who subsequently went to great lengths to prolong his life, including importing and using medicines not approved by the FDA. Part of his plan involved forming a “buyers club” that let him sell the unlicensed drugs to his fellow patients, distributing the medicine in return for a membership fee. There’s a lot of inherent drama in the story, and director Jean-Marc Vallee and writers Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack walk a tightrope between sordid melodrama and treacly sentimentality to create a film that’s stark, emotionally honest, and unafraid of complicated characters. Yet the film works better in small doses than it does overall, and it has more to say about the small human moments that make up relationships than about larger social movements or stories. There are so many wonderful, painful, compelling scenes here, yet the sum product often strains to be the kind of courtroom drama or statement picture that you’d be more likely to associate with the subject matter and the award-season calendar. As it unfolds, the film digs deeper into its characters while also losing forward momentum. It chugs along but doesn’t go anywhere, and the ending feels forced and awkward, as if Vallee or someone else couldn’t quite bear the thought of this one man living and dying his own way. What starts as a fierce character study and evolves into a complex portrait of forgiveness and redemption becomes, in its final moments, something cheaper, smaller, more desperate to be “uplifting” than committed to following the course it’s been charting.
For most of the film, though, Vallee steers the ship expertly through waters that’d drown other directors. Woodroof is a brash, bigoted, angry, crass homophobe, and he’s played with rangy grace by Matthew McConaughey (who lost close to 40 pounds for the role). This is smart casting — in part because McConaughey’s natural temper and history of screen personas make it a little easier to pity Woodroof instead of hate him outright for the vicious things he says, but also because McConaughey is able to bring the right balance of energy, worry, and desperation to the role. Woodroof at first doesn’t even believe he’s contracted the disease, thinks the doctors are lying to him, and when he accepts the truth, he doubles down on his determination to stay alive. New drugs like AZT are in the early stages of testing, so he does what he can to get his hands on some, eventually moving to remedies outside the U.S. and not approved by the FDA.
The heart of the film, though, is Woodroof’s scheme to get rich while also fighting his disease. After seeking treatment from a doctor in Mexico, he starts importing and selling unlicensed meds around Dallas, eventually forming the membership-driven Dallas Buyers Club to try and stay a few steps ahead of the government. This is the strongest section of the film because Vallee and McConaughey don’t shy away from the rage and conflict that drive Woodroof. He is, after all, charging a steep premium on these drugs, and he refuses to discount his prices. He’s also intensely homophobic, and he hates his customers as much as he needs them. That relationship is brought to life in a business partnership he forms with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual with the disease who helps Woodruff grow his client base. McConaughey and Leto ar perfect together, too, in large part because Vallee doesn’t force them into becoming fast friends or inspirational beacons for each other. Their cooperation grows into respect and friendship organically, but they’re both still flawed: Woodroof’s angry and mercurial, Rayon’s a drug addict. They meet for the first time when Woodroof’s in the hospital, and Rayon helps Woodroof deal with a muscle cramp, their physical intimacy and loaded language (“That’s the spot.” / “Just relax.”) both a sexual parody of the relationship they will never have and a way for Woodroof to start lowering his guard and changing his mind. It’s a small moment, a grace note, but Vallee has many of them.
McConaughey’s performance is magnetic — tough, broken, charismatic, riveting — but Leto is in another world. He dropped 30 pounds for his role, too, but there’s so much more to his performance than that. He is so fully inside the character that his work transcends typical notions of acting and just feels real, raw, totally unforced. In one of his best moments, he dons a baggy suit and goes to visit the father who’s disowned him in an attempt to get money to help Woodroof’s operation. When his father mutters a disgusted “God help me,” Rayon shoots back, “He is helping you. I have AIDS.” He’s angry and alone and rejected, pissed at his father, wroth with himself, and proud of who he is. He embodies every awful thing about the epidemic, and he does it so easily. Leto’s stunning in just about every scene.
Yet it’s also tough to think of the film without thinking of its eleventh-hour dive into predictability. There can be, of course, no good end for Ron Woodroof, even if this weren’t based on historical fact. But for most of the film’s two hours, Woodroof’s story is one of personal challenge and redemption, and of the small ways we help each other through life. Toward the end, though, Woodroof’s attempts to appeal the FDA’s crackdown on his operation are suddenly escalated, and Vallee starts hedging his bets. There’s Woodroof’s homecoming from the appeal to find a house of people who applaud his efforts, and some pre-credit title cards that feel tacked-on and perfunctory, as if Vallee were legally required to clear the air about the makers of AZT and the final days of Woodroof in general. In other words, what had mostly been a powerful drama rooted in characters drawn from real life starts acting like a boilerplate year-end biopic. As a result, the film feels unfinished, or perhaps just uncommitted. Everything Vallee had accurately and artfully captured until then feels separate, as if it came from another filmmaker altogether. The final scenes are too dedicated to cleaning up life’s mess, and they feel especially clumsy because, for so much of the film, Vallee brings that beautiful ruin to life.