Prior to stepping into Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée’s brash new socio-medical biopic, a friend who was accompanying me to the screening joked that he was looking forward to watching a lighthearted buddy comedy.
Somehow, in some McConaughey-fed way, that off-hand crack turned out to have real truth to it. No, it’s not Lethal Weapon, but this Oscar contender has big balls, its depiction of America’s evolving understanding of HIV and homosexuality distilled through the bond between two men — one of whom identifies as a woman.
Based on an article that appeared in the The Dallas Morning News in 1992, Vallée’s film profiles Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a party-hardy electrician with the appetites of a golden-era Rolling Stone who turns into a pharma-smuggling Robin Hood. Opening with a sweaty, uncomfortable scene of Woodroof having sex with two glassy-eyed rodeo groupies in a filthy bull stall, it’s clear from go that the man does not give a shit — which does well amplifying the moment he’s informed, his reedy frame draped in rumpled coveralls on a hospital bed, that he is HIV-positive.
Now that we’re living in an era where medicine is beginning to catch up with HIV and AIDS, it’s easy to overlook just how terrifying it was during its mid-’80s first wave. Screenwriter Craig Borten, who had the opportunity to speak with Woodroof before his death in 1992, nabs this long-shelved sentiment in a series of scenes involving the unlikely activist’s slow acceptance of his status. He actually has to pore over microfiche research in a library to realize that unprotected sex transmits the virus — and that you don’t have to be gay to become infected.
Small but significant moves like this ballast Dallas Buyers Club, solidifying its identity as a period piece that will become more valuable as time passes. But it’s the movie’s two main performances, prime-cut actor’s-dream roles that are proving universally irresistible to audiences, that are encouraging the most real-time conversation.
For the past few years, McConaughey has been performing artistic penance for every waste-of-space romantic comedy he’s subjected us to since the outset of his weird-ass career. (Screw you, The Wedding Planner!) In Killer Joe, Mud and even his perma-shirtless turn in Magic Mike, the real-life Texan has exposed us to a more wounded and nuanced brand of all-American charisma. It’s difficult to imagine another actor taking on the challenge of portraying Woodroof, though the magnetic role is supercharged by the efforts of Jared Leto.
Jared Leto?! Yes. As Rayon, Woodroof’s unlikely business partner and HIV-positive ally, the actor best-known to kids these days as the guy from 30 Seconds to Mars provides an unexpectedly subtle perspective to the film — unexpected, since he plays a chatty transvestite drug addict who’s obsessed with Marc Bolan.
Rayon, who helps Woodroof market his creatively attained HIV treatments to patients who can’t stomach or afford the FDA-approved drug AZT, is a composite of Woodroof’s real-life associates. She’s involved in some of the movie’s hammier moments, like when Woodroof throws his homophobic former friend in a full nelson and forces him to shake her hand after he uses a derogatory slur in the supermarket. But Leto’s delicate handle and sense of humor counterbalances Vallée’s occasional bouts with overstatement, the only real weakness of his feature.
A buddy comedy? Not precisely. But it’s got something to say about friendship.
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