“Dallas Buyers Club” Review: How skinny can an actor get for a role?

Hello. This is a Korean in America. Today, I want to talk about a movie based on a real life person, Ron Woodroof. It is called the “Dallas Buyers Club” about an AIDS patient during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, 1980s. And I have to say… the actors get really thin to play AIDS patients.

Biopics are never easy to do!

It is difficult to compress a person’s life into 2 hour without losing focus. This is more of a problem when we are talking about the so called “Great Men” who leave such an imprint in the sands of time that every moment of their lives are interesting subjects that academics write theses about them.  

It is actually easier to makes movies about relative normal people who just happen to do something special within a short period because the fates just seemed to align events in a specific manner. Examples of this type of biopics are “Erin Brockovich” and even “Schindler's List”. You do not need to really know their whole life story. You only need to know what they did during the time period when they emerge above the obscurity of normal life to make an imprint in the sands of time even if it’s a small one. Not many of us could even lay claim to that much. “Dallas Buyers Club” is this type of biopic.

The Plot
“Dallas Buyers Club” is about a low life electrician, Ron Woodroof, living in Dallas who finds out he has AIDS in 1985. Ron Woodroof was born into a low life electrician family and never really tried to emerge from that environment. As with his father, he is just content boozing, F**king, and taking drugs and never making more of his life. His only ambition in life is to live.

After he is diagnosed with AIDS, he is fired up to literally keep that one ambition alive. But what can a boozing, F**king, and taking drugs low life do?

Well, take drugs?...!

The lack of experimental AIDS treatment drugs on the market, because of FDA’s shenanigans, led Ron Woodroof to smuggle drugs from all around the world to keep him and many of his customers alive. He creates a nice size business of selling these drugs, called the “Dallas Buyers Club” using a legal loop hole. The movie follows his life from when he is diagnosed and to his death 7 years later.

What is the movie about at its core?
A common approach to this type of terminal patient story is to go the “Live life to its fullest” route. “Dallas Buyers Club” does not go down that route although there are some mentions of it in the script. I think the movie,  “Dallas Buyers Club”, is about three things.

First, it is a story about rising above one’s environment. While we never actually get to see much about Ron Woodroof past in the movie, you know that he really never had a chance.
However, he is not the normal slob sitting at a bar all day.

He is intelligent. He has charm. He has a strong vein of obstinance and independence.

Even so, he was born into obscurity and he would have died in obscurity if he had lived the average life span for a person in his environment. AIDS gave him a purpose and combined all his talents with his one and only ambition.

You can see him grow as a person, a businessman, and as the pillar of the AIDS community to fight for the community’s right to experimental drug treatment. Thus, while AIDS shorten his life, it also enlarged it beyond what was possible before it.

Second, it is about emotional comradery and bond that develops from suffering from the same terminal illness and fighting for one’s life together. It is how that comradery trumps over lifelong prejudices and makes a homophobic grown up redneck male cry real tears for his gay cross-dressing friend who succumbed to the illness.  

The movie does this very subtly. In the beginning, Ron Woodroof is homophobic like you would expect from a redneck. Throughout the movie, Ron Woodroof never really becomes comfortable with the gay life style or sexuality. He does not, let’s say, turn GAY or become really comfy with the “fabulous” life style like a lot of movies with gay subject matter do.
If I think about it, the movie, “Dallas Buyers Club”, does not seem to say anything good about being gay during the 1980s. Being gay during the 1980s is portrayed more as a tragedy than as a happy alternative life style.

At the end of the movie, Ron Woodroof is still a redneck. It is just that he learns to accept the people who have AIDS like him as people who just are gay. He may not be comfortable with it but he can work around it.

Third, the movie is about the criticism about the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry during the 1980s which can be seen as social commentary for the current times.

What do I like about the movie?
The movie is a lot like Ron Woodroof  himself. The movie has charm but is not charming. It has kindness but does not try to portray the characters and situation with kindness. It is blunt and straightforward. It is the kind of movie that is the ultimate acting show case. Because everything surrounding them is rather dry and muted, the acting just pops up.

And it really does pop up!

Matthew Mcconaughey and Jared Leto are the stars of the movie as we see them thin out and waste away during the whole movie. I am not a person that just gives praise for actors changing their bodies for a role. However, when they combine great performances with really believable AIDS patient appearances, I have to shower praise.

Matthew Mcconaughey has been on his, like, 3rd comeback since the start of his career. This movie show that he is still on a roll in terms of acting. He makes an unlikeable character interesting and lovable. However, I would have to say Jared Leto was the great surprise of the movie. I have seen Jared Leto before but he was just one of the pretty boys in Hollywood that are a dime a dozen. He plays the gay cross-dresser who starts the Dallas Buyers Club with Ron Woodroof .  

Before anything, Jared Leto makes a believable cross-dresser/transvestite although not passible. You would not take him as a genetic female. I will confess that he has this androgynous quality that is interesting.  Jared Leto’s character is this spunky, kind, and ultimately damaged soul that ends up tagging along with this fowl mouth redneck. They end up forming this weird relationship which is somewhere in between a dysfunctional married couple and a brother and sister relationship.

Both Matthew Mcconaughey and Jared Leto have great chemistry on screen even more so than the chemistry between Matthew Mcconaughey and Jennifer Garner. It is really something when you end up caring for a character even when the movie looks at the character with blunt observational eyes.

What I did not like about the movie
There are a few things that do not work with the movie.

First, the whole anti-FDA aspect of the movie did not as work as well as the other elements of the movie. Simply put, the movie only deals with it on a superficial level.

Rather than opening a discussion about the drug approval process, this whole aspect is just personified by two characters: the doctor and a FDA agent played by Denis O'Hare and Michael O'Neill. This could work to a degree as seen in other movies.

The problem with this approach in this movie is that both characters are not overtly evil nor well defined. As with every other character in the movie, the movie just observes these characters as people. However, we never really get to know much about. They are just there doing stuff without an in-depth look into their motivations. As a result, they don’t work as personifications of the evil government bureaucracy or corporation.

This becomes more of a problem for the movie at its end. The movie ends with this legal trial involving the FDA. However, since the whole anti-FDA aspect did not work from the beginning, the ending is rather unsatisfying.

Second, there is a serious problem with the latter part of the movie when Matthew Mcconaughey and Jennifer Garner are on screen more of time. The duo was in “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” together and worked well off each other. However, this is not true for this movie.

This comes down to acting styles. Matthew Mcconaughey has always been an actor that resonates with energy on screen. You can feel it resonate from his handsome face. This is not the same for Jennifer Garner. She is one of the actors that absorb energy from other actors like a capacitor and release in subtly when required. Without someone with energy playing opposite from her, she is just boring to see on screen unlike Matthew Mcconaughey who would even make reading a phone book interesting.

In “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”, the pairing worked with Matthew Mcconaughey having enough energy for the both of them. The problem with “Dallas Buyers Club” is that the weight loss does take its toll. You can see Matthew Mcconaughey on screen energy draining away with his weight.  

This is less of a problem in the earlier parts of the movie because Matthew Mcconaughey was paired off with Jared Leto’s character. Among the two of them, they still have enough energy to keep the lights on. In the later parts of the movie, when there is only Jennifer Garner, she just sucks all the energy out of the scenes like a black hole. 

At the end of the movie
What can I say about this movie…?
Dallas Buyers Club” is not a very dramatic movie! Nor is it a very kind and heartwarming movie. But it is a powerful movie.

At the beginning, you know Matthew Mcconaughey’s character has AIDS even though he does not. Every time, he drinks something or has sex with someone, you just cringe of the thought of the virus being transmitted since the movie does not look at the characters with kindness.
However, at the end , you do not even notice it.
He is no longer a virus carrier but a person.

A movie that is able to do that is something special especially with only the actors’ great acting abilities as its sole weapon. If you like acting showcase movies, this is the one to see!

Score: A-

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  1. I need to watch this MV.
    Really nice writing, thanks a lot for the review :)

  2. A Korean in AmericaNovember 22, 2013 at 9:19 AM

    thanks for commenting

  3. Your writing is, sometimes, insightful. You do not,, however, seem to have grasped all of the nuances of the film. Also, you come across as ignorant, when describing Jared Leto's character and the divergence and, ultimate convergence, of Ron and Rayon.