The project was in development for some 20 years, ever since the 1992 passing of the real-life Woodroof. Let’s get this out of the way right up front: if there was a more thrilling, daring, and committed performance than Matthew McConaughey’s in 2013, I haven’t seen it. The rightful recipient of numerous awards and honors, McConaughey caps his recent run of extraordinary performances (The Paperboy, Mud, Killer Joe, to name a few) with a towering achievement. Brash, bold, and sometimes not especially likeable, his portrayal of Woodroof is uncompromising. Breaking laws, pissing people off, and refusing to relinquish his dignity in the face of a debilitating illness, McConaughey embodies the most unlikely of heroes (a superhero, it seems, given his willful refusal to accept doctors’ prognosis of 30 days following his diagnosis).
Certain liberties were taken with the facts of Woodroof’s life and, unlike with so many “true stories,” screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack have made justifiable, inspired choices. We meet Woodroof as he’s experiencing an anonymous, unsafe threesome behind-the-scenes at the rodeo where he works. Whether or not this how he contracted HIV is not definitively stated, but soon after he’s admitted to the hospital where he’s informed his T-cell count is alarmingly low. The year is 1985 and much of America still viewed HIV/AIDS as a gay-only affliction. Abrasively homophobic, Woodroof rebuffs his doctors’ diagnosis and continues his hard-living, drug-abusing lifestyle. But the nagging suspicion that they may have been correct leads him to research the disease independently.
Though the physical ravages of AIDS are not ignored (McConaughey’s weight loss is only one staggering aspect of his performance), Dallas Buyers Club is not preoccupied with depicting symptoms. The engine that drives the plot is Woodroof’s determination to buck the FDA, Big Pharma, and even sectors of the then-contemporary medical community in order to bring relief and life-extension to HIV/AIDS sufferers. Working with a transgendered patient, Rayon (Jared Leto, also extraordinary), he essentially becomes a new kind of drug kingpin. Instead of selling recreational drugs to addicts, Woodroof smuggles in unapproved, experimental pharmaceuticals from anywhere he can secure them. The “buyers club” is a subscription plan that, for a monthly fee, allows patient to obtain alternatives to the super-expensive, FDA-approved (though controversial during this time period) antiviral AZT.
Director Vallée manages the impressive feat of resisting overt sentimentality, even infusing the story with a great deal of humor. As Woodroof loses his friends and meets more individuals facing his same predicament, his homophobia morphs into compassion and acceptance. It’s a character study, but with doses of medical and courtroom drama. Leto’s Rayon is a composite character, representing the outré (by mainstream standards, especially in Dallas in 1985) clientele with which Woodroof finds himself working and bonding. Jennifer Garner turns in restrained work as Dr. Eve Saks, another composite who serves as an amalgam of doctors sympathetic to Woodroof’s unconventional (and law-bending) approach.
Produced on a relatively low budget, Dallas Buyers Club looks absolutely acceptable on Universal’s Blu-ray. The gritty, high contrast look of Yves Bélanger’s cinematography gives the film a decidedly retro look (despite it being shot digitally). It’s entirely appropriate given the film’s ‘80s setting. There’s nothing to complain about regarding the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 either. Given the film’s dialogue-driven nature, there are not many opportunities to show off an overtly immersive mix. Surround and LFE activity is limited, but music sounds fine and the all-important dialogue sounds great. The persistent, varying ringing in Woodroof’s ears is one of the most effective effects utilized in the otherwise straightforward sound design.
Don’t look to the special features for any information about the real Ron Woodroof—or any info at all, really. I don’t know if this signals a possible post-Oscars special edition at some point, but unfortunately there is almost nothing here in terms of extras. There are a couple of deleted scenes (five minutes) and a glorified trailer introduced by McConaughey. The movie has more than enough repeat-viewing value, but it would’ve been nice to have something of substance to supplement it. The combo pack includes a standard DVD and UltraViolet digital copy.
Dallas Buyers Club is one of the great films of 2013. In fact, it should rope in even those viewers who generally avoid illness- or medical-related films. McConaughey’s performance must be seen to be believed, but Dallas Buyers Club is so much more than a mere acting showcase.
Photos: Universal Studios