September 9, 2013



DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is more Erin Brockovich than Brian’s Song, and that’s why it works so well.  Jean-Marc Vallee’s film, written by Craig Borten and Melisa Walack, is too angry to be sentimental.  Set during the 1980s, it tells the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey, in a career-highlight performance), a hard-living, homophobic Texas electrician and rodeo rider who’s stunned to learn that he has AIDS, given 30 days to live by an officious doctor (Denis O’Hare).  Ron is a born hustler, and after some quick bouts with denial (even more drug use than usual, and unprotected sex) and anger (suddenly he finds himself the victim of homophobia from his good ol’ boy buddies), he schemes to get his hands on AZT, the first AIDS drug that the FDA permitted to be tested on humans.  Ron can’t get into the legitimate trial–his lifestyle and condition make him ineligible–so he learns how to play the black market.

But the joke, in a sense, is on him:  AZT turns out to be so toxic that even cancer patients couldn’t use it. Taken in high doses, it kills most of the patients it’s supposed to be treating.  Ron may be antisocial and bigoted, but he’s canny and determined, and he starts researching anti-AIDS regimens outside the US.  In Mexico, he finds an unlicensed American doctor (Griffin Dunne) who’s gotten results with a cocktail of vitamins and drugs unapproved by the FDA (because they’re not backed by big pharmaceutical companies).  Ron figures out a variety of shady ways–impersonating a priest is one of them–to get the drugs into the country.

And this is where Ron Woodruff’s story, and Dallas Buyers Club, become inspiring in spite of themselves. Ron realizes that there’s money to be made from other AIDS patients who are suffering from having either no medication at all or just the tender mercies of AZT–if he can just turn them into his customers.  The vast majority of them are gay, which forces him into a reluctant partnership with drag queen Rayon (Jared Leto). Since he can’t legally prescribe medication, he sets up a “buyers club,” accepting payment in the form of monthly dues, in exchange for which “members” get all the medication they need.  Along the way, like a redneck Oskar Schindler, Woodruff finds his soul, and he goes to war with the FDA and the medical establishment.

Dallas Buyers Club does a solid job of avoiding the traps of its genre, laying out its issues and chronology efficiently and vividly, and knowing when to push emotional buttons and when to hold back.  What makes it truly memorable, though, are its performances.  It’s no longer a surprise to see Matthew McConaughey doing great work–his career rebirth as an honest-to-god actor is now several years old–but Ron Woodruff gives him a once-in-a-lifetime part, and his triumph in it goes far beyond the physical challenge of losing so much weight that he looks truly unhealthy.  He’s feisty, mean, charming and heroic all at once.  Jared Leto, who’s barely been an afterthought for the last several years, matches McConaughey as his sidekick and partner.  It would have been all too easy to make these two into the equivalent of mismatched buddy cops, but Leto plays the role with welcome restraint.  Jennifer Garner, as a doctor who gradually becomes sympathetic to Ron and his mission, is winning and able to go toe-to-toe with McConaughey.  Along with O’Hare and Dunne, Michael Wilson and Dallas Roberts are among those who make strong impressions in brief roles.

Vallee, working in a completely different fact-based tone from his The Young Victoria, brings grit and scale to the material, mirroring Woodruff’s disbelief that the government and the medical establishment are treating its own patients with such disregard.  In the post-screening Q&A at Toronto, McConaughey said the main emotion he channeled in playing Woodruff was rage, and rage, not sadness, is what powers Dallas Buyers Club–with a bit of the caperish spirit of Catch Me If You Can to boot.  The movie isn’t an elegy, it’s an expose, and while it can be very moving, mostly it’s fierce.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."