More often than we’d care to admit, our noble deeds are products not of kindhearted altruism but, rather, of self-centered desires. (For example, some give money to charity because it makes them feel good about themselves and gets them a tax write-off—and, hey, if it actually helps people in need, well, that’s certainly nice, too.) You don’t have to be a cynic to be disappointed that this essential reality is missing in a lot of inspirational Hollywood dramas based on true stories: They deify their subjects without always investigating the complicated reasons behind their selfless acts. This isn’t to say that these people were disingenuous in their actions—simply that righteousness isn’t always the sole motivating factor.
Despite some feel-good conventionality, Dallas Buyers Club succeeds thanks to its pragmatic view of its rather pragmatic hero. Inspired by true events, the film stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, who in the mid-1980s was living in Dallas and happily screwing every woman in town when a trip to the doctor uncovered that he was HIV-positive. A man’s man—in other words, a small-minded homophobe—Woodroof initially refuses to believe the diagnosis since he’s not gay, but after being told he has about 30 days to live, he focuses his energy on seeking out drugs that can help him survive.
Woodroof’s quest leads him to Mexico, where he finds effective medications that aren’t approved in the U.S. To change this, he hits upon the idea of starting a group in Dallas in which fellow HIV-positive individuals can pay monthly dues to him for unlimited amounts of these pills they can’t legally buy in the States.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria, C.R.A.Z.Y. ), Dallas Buyers Club works best as a matter-of-fact exploration of Woodroof’s unexpected entrepreneurial ambitions. The true story has plenty of juicy intrigue—a homophobe becomes a hero to the gay community, an ordinary man becomes a sort of drug smuggler—but Vallée largely deemphasizes those elements to ground his film in an everyday nonchalance.
That’s appropriate because, as portrayed in Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof isn’t a man who suddenly saw the error in his attitudes about homosexuals. Instead, his journey to tolerance is muted and somewhat reluctant. Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t judge him for this—it understands that these slow, incremental steps are how social change usually comes about.
Consequently, this is not one of those award-hungry movies where the flawed central character delivers an impassioned speech about how he’s learned important life lessons. (Unfortunately, he does deliver an impassioned speech about something else late in the movie.) Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s screenplay spends little time on personal growth because, as we see, Woodroof had more pressing concerns. McConaughey lost a considerable amount of weight for the role, and his frail presence is a constant reminder of the character’s looming mortality, casting a somber pall over every minor triumph that comes his way. But from that near-certain death sentence, Woodroof discovers the right combination of drugs to keep him alive—in the process also discovering the crookedness and greed of the pharmaceutical industry, which is more concerned with profits than people’s health.
McConaughey wields the same force-of-nature charm as always, and it works to further play up the accidental heroism of this seemingly ordinary man. His performance is complemented by the presence of Jared Leto, who plays a transgender drug addict named Rayon who’s also battling HIV. Initially repulsed by this man who dresses and behaves like a woman, Woodroof begrudgingly learns to tolerate her moods and appearance as she becomes his close confidant in this so-called “buyers club.” Subtly, the movie argues that Woodroof’s acceptance of people of different sexual persuasions came about not through grand epiphanies but through the daily interactions with Rayon and other members of the LGBT community: the same way that same-sex marriage has become viewed more favorably across the United States by people who previously had been hostile to the idea.
Leto’s performance is the showier of the two, but the actor doesn’t reduce Rayon to an adorable and/or campy cliché. Rayon (a fictional creation inspired by several real people) has her failings just as Woodroof does, and Leto convincingly embodies the push-pull conflicts within the character: her strong sense of self but also her self-destructive tendencies. The movie’s great unspoken dark joke is that HIV is such a powerful, ubiquitous disease that it managed to ensnare two such radically dissimilar individuals. The world may view them quite differently, but in their diagnosis they’re equals.
The film’s stripped-down dramatization of Woodroof’s buyers-club operation—which gained increased scrutiny by the U.S. government over time—is so quietly engaging that it’s a shame that Vallée eventually succumbs to inspirational-movie tenets. Near the finale, Dallas Buyers Club becomes a clumsily grandstanding attack on big pharma that, although laudable, works against the movie’s small-scale effectiveness. (Along the same lines, a potential love interest for Woodroof, a doctor played by Jennifer Garner, proves to be more trouble than it’s worth.) You walk away from Dallas Buyers Club not so much moved by the larger issues as you are by the simple, odd friendship forged by Woodroof and Rayon. These two accidental crusaders are heroes precisely because they never set out to be—they just wanted to stay alive.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writers: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner
Release Date: Nov. 1, 2013