Dallas Buyers Club (film review) by Frank Ochieng.

Disturbing, poignant and brilliantly acted, the potent impact of ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ certainly is a shocking triumph as both social commentary and absorbing entertainment. Additionally, the artistically dark cinematic roles for Matthew McConaughey continue to impress and engage critics and moviegoers alike. From 2011’s vastly underrated ‘Killer Joe’ to this year’s nuanced turn in ‘Mud’, McConaughey’s gritty Oscar-worthy turn in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ should hopefully erase the previous forgettable and flaccid romantic comedies that notoriously grace his filmography and solidify him as one of the promising risk-taking actors working in Hollywood today.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack collaborate on a first-rate production that poetically stings with indignation, sharp wit, compassion and raw insight.  ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is based on the real-life exploits of Texas cowboy/bull rider and self-employed electrician Ron Woodroof whose reckless and carefree lifestyle in drugs and dames led to his contracting the HIV-positive virus during the AIDS epidemic of the mid 1980s.

As a character study, Woodroof (McConaughey) was an unredeemable rogue with no filter whatsoever. A tall and mustached string bean-built Texan (Texas native McConaughey reportedly shed nearly 50 pounds off of his body frame for this role), the gaunt-looking Woodroof was a despicable soul whose penchant for gambling, banging rodeo groupies at will and dabbling in narcotics and alcohol made him a hardened cad. Predictably, Woodroof’s intolerance as a bigot and homophobe painted his complete portrait as in insufferable good ol’ country boy wallowing in his brand of heavy-handed disillusionment.

When a workplace accident lands the lewd Woodroof in the hospital, he is given the unfortunate news that he is infected with HIV blood that leads to AIDS complications. Woodroof is in disbelief when the doctors give him a mere 30 days to live. He is livid and feels that the doctors made a terrible mistake. After all, he is a straight grade-A American male that sexually enjoys the company of the ladies…only homosexual males get this dreaded disease and Ron Woodroof’s vain reasoning is that he’s anything but that ‘disgraceful’ label.

When the word gets out that Woodroof has ‘tainted gay blood’ and his buddies and co-workers begin to cruelly stigmatize him and question his heterosexual manhood, the weakened Ron sets out to research his life-threatening medical conditioning. After all, there must be a better way to combat what he is going through with an immediate death sentence hanging over his head? The doctors insist that there is no medical treatment that can tackle and eradicate the HIV-related viruses that run in Woodroof’s system but he has other plans to prove him wrong.

Woodruff’s constant fainting spells and other physical malfunctioning puts him in the company of both Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) and hospital roommate Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman that the ignorant Woodroof brushes off with disdain until an impromptu card game and kind-hearted gesture from Rayon to ease his pain lets down Woodroof’s gruff guard a bit. Soon, the crass cowboy and heroin-addicted transgender cut-up will go into business together and eventually form an unlikely partnership/friendship (astutely reminiscent of the unconventional tandem of Joe Buck and Rico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo’s seedy relationship from 1969s Academy Award-winning ‘Midnight Cowboy’).

A desperate Woodroof, who no longer can get his hands on the breakthrough AZT pills, seeks treatment in Mexico under the care of an eccentric physician named Vass (Griffin Dunne). Through Dr. Vass’ suggestion, Woodroof contemplates smuggling in cases upon cases of banned untested drugs into the United States and make some profit on these narcotics to potential customers willing to pay for the privilege of easing their suffering. Hence, the Dallas Buyers Club is born and if you have the right price to contain your severe ailments then fork over $400.00 and take your chances with Woodroof’s concoction of various ‘magical medicines’.

Despite the entrepreneurial success of Woodroof’s drug dispenser enterprise, the inevitable opposing forces (in this case the FDA and Saks’s skeptical hospital administrators) are infuriated with how responsive the patients have been when gravitating toward the likes of the pill-pushing Woodroof and the incredible patronage that he has drummed up locally and beyond. What started out as a self-centered need to acquire cash and tend to his personal needs resulted in the surprising crusade that Ron Woodroof had cultivated in his advocacy for patients’ freedom to obtain sustainable treatment without the red tape of opportunistic pharmaceutical companies and the FDA pencil-pushers.

‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is riveting and soundly arresting in its examination of a hustler with an indescribable burden of accidental redemption heaped upon his shady-minded shoulders. McConaughey embodies the wayward Woodroof with an intensifying naughtiness, self-absorbed cockiness and despair that are completely surreal. The film never makes the mistake of completely rehabbing Ron Woodroof’s carousing and appetite for substance abuse (even during his most distressing moments in physical pain or joyous profitable times during his Dallas Buyers Club feeding frenzy, he resorts back to tawdry sexual dalliances with free-wheeling bimbos).

McConaughey’s frail physicality alone is an eye-popping sight that is so alarming but gives a defining fierceness to his unforgettable portrayal. Leto’s Rayon is spot-on as the wounded and free-spirited transgendered junkie whose sassiness and spunk reminds us how tragic and strangely triumphant this individual was in her complex skin. Both McConaughey and Leto deliver the most mesmerising performances in their film careers and it would be a crying shame if this duo is not recognised at the upcoming  2014 Academy Awards ceremony. Garner is absolutely graceful and believable as the physician that understands the cockeyed connection that is shared between the defiant Woodroof and the glib Rayon. This is Garner’s best showing since her underrated turn in 2007’s ‘Juno’.

In all, the deteriorating specimen that is McConaughey’s corroding and callous cowboy Ron Woodroof, he beat the odds in the long run for an extra seven years of living from the time of his fatal diagnosis until his vulnerable existence finally ran out. ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ proved that even an unrepentant rough rider can stay on the bucking bull long enough to realise his potential for baby steps of self-discovery and growth.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Focus Features

1 hr. 57 mins.

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne and Dallas Roberts

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee

MPAA Rating: R

Genre: Drama/Biopic

Critic’s rating: *** ½ stars (out of 4 stars)


Frank Ochieng has contributed film reviews to SF Crowsnest off and on since 2003. He has been published in other various movie site venues throughout the years. Ochieng has been part of The Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and had written film reviews for The Boston Banner newspaper (USA) and frequently is a media/entertainment panelist on WBZ NewsRadio 1030 AM on "The Jordan Rich Show" in Boston, Massachusetts/USA.

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