In every way possible, Dallas Buyers Club is a film that screams of desperation (while whispering of exploitation). In terms of narrative, the focus is on people so desperate for some way to prolong their lives that they will take any combination of pills at any price and those willing to take that money for those pills. Outside of the narrative, the characters of Ron Woodroff and Rayon offer the “gritty” (meaning ugly), physically transformative and redemptive performances that are in such vogue with Academy members, following Milk, Philadelphia and other such films, along with the anti-prescription drug sentiment of the current zeitgeist. Much of the movie is quite good, including the story and performances, but it loses something in its blatant attempt to be meaningful. It’s made more for a need to win Oscars than tell a story.
The film wastes no time in establishing its grit with an opening sequence where Matthew McConaughey goes from a torrid, panting threesome under the stands of a rodeo, to pushing his bull-riding compatriots into large bets and running frantically from the angry mob when those bets fail, to finally getting a busted nose. It’s a sequence that very nicely establishes Woodroff and the world he occupies. Even before the evitable downward spiral, his life isn’t exactly sustainable or, for anything more than a few fleeting hours, enjoyable. All of which makes the audience wonder why we should care for this character or his story. However, this atmosphere is a big part of what works about Dallas Buyers Club.
The other, bigger part is the lead performances. Both McConaughey and Jared Leto are physically unrecognizable, the former through dropping a reported 45 pounds and the latter by taking on the facial features and body language of a druggy drag queen. Jennifer Garner as well goes the unglamorous route to a good performance as a well-meaning but powerless doctor. Despite his physical transformation, Woodroff remains the cocky character that McConaughey typically plays, only this time with an extra dose of creep and homophobia, his inevitable redemption coming in obvious and exploitative ways. Woodroff is less martyr than opportunist, and the movie follows suit. McConaughey plays the character very well, so well in fact that it’s a shame the role is such a clear example of Oscar bait, with only one box left unchecked from the Things Academy Voters Love. Leto on the other hand, while also good, if a little less so, checks off every box.
Beyond its desperation, Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t feel like a film that’s minutes short of two hours, and not in that way that there is just so much happening but in that the minutes just feel longer. Thematically the film plays the same FDA incompetence note over and over again, beating the audience over the head with this meaning while offering only passing rebuttals and antagonistic caricatures with much of the same motivation as Woodroff himself. It doesn’t so much make a point as beg for a counterpoint.
In all, Dallas Buyers Club is a well-acted, well-made film, the exact type that one can expect during the push toward Oscar season. It just doesn’t live up to the transcendence it so desperately proclaims.