'Dallas Buyers Club' is worth joining

By TOM JOZWIK - Special to TimeOut

December 5, 2013

WAUKESHA - Welcome medical inroads have dulled the once cutting-edge nature of films about the AIDS crisis (are we even calling it a crisis anymore?). However, some 25 years after the time it depicts, there is much to recommend  Dallas Buyers Club.

Specifically, there are the performances of stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto (each of whom lost a lot of weight for his part), performances likely to earn serious Oscar consideration for both actors. There are also the rather unique, multidimensional characters that dominate the engaging story line - a fast-moving one, despite its coverage of considerable territory over several years. There are the poignant feelings the movies realism (sometimes sordid, never sickening) manages to create in the viewer, as well as a Robin Hood sort of castigating of the powers that be and uplifting of the little guys with whom the average moviegoer will tend to identify.  

In the film, advertised as being inspired by true events, McConaughey plays rodeo cowboy/electrician Ron Woodroof, whose nasty cough, blurred vision and collapse to the floor of his Texas trailer home early on prove symptomatic of the HIV virus. Headlines have been reporting the death from AIDS of actor Rock Hudson (a circumstance at which Woodroof and his cowpoke buddies have been sneering). Good old Ron is a good old homophobe, and so when the hard-drinking mans man and consummate ladies man is diagnosed with HIV he nearly chews the diagnosticians head off.  

Observing that hes surprised Woodroof is still alive, the diagnosing immunologist (destined to symbolize an antagonistic medical establishment) gives the cowboy 30 days to live. Woodroof spends the earliest of his remaining days researching AIDS at a library; the words unprotected sex leap out from his word processor and dominate the movie screen.  

Back in the hospital, McConaugheys Ron meets Letos Rayon, a transvestite AIDS patient.  Against all odds, they become business partners (and, after his rodeo sidekicks have abandoned Woodroof in revulsion, close friends). Their business is the Dallas Buyers Club (DBC), which HIV sufferers join to obtain  medication. Woodroof smuggles the medication in from Mexico and elsewhere, sometimes in the guise of a priest. It is comparatively affordable and effective contraband and DBC membership precludes drug dealing charges for Ron and Rayons customers.  

Along the route from homophobe to tolerant opportunist to heroic activist, Woodroof as face of the DBC does battle with an alphabet soup of bureaucratic entities, as well as hospital honchos. If Denis OHare as previously alluded to Dr. Sevard represents the medical establishment, his colleague Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) embodies the dilemma between the traditionally cautious treatment of the killer disease and a boldly experimental approach. Cleverly, director Jean-Marc Vallee, writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack - and, of course, actor OHare - avoid making Sevard detestable; the business-as-usual physician is neither uncaring nor unlikable. As for Garner, Vallee has her express her changing attitude nonverbally in several scenes, a tactic that also works nicely.  

Griffin Dunne is memorable as yet another doctor, Vass, who operates a ramshackle Mexican clinic following sanctions for his experimental  treatment of AIDS in the U.S.  Steve Zahn is effective as Tucker, the rodeo cohort who is Woodroofs best friend. (Best friend, that is, until Ron makes the mistake of letting Tucker in on the HIV diagnosis that sets this fine movie - a project that originated 21 years back, when Magic Johnsons HIV diagnosis was still news - in motion.)