Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) gets the wake-up call of his life when he is told by doctors that he is HIV-positive and has roughly 30 days to live. Considering he’s a hard-living rodeo cowboy who ekes out a living as an electrician and who never used intravenous drugs, he begins by denying he has the virus. But soon he’s scrambling to find a way to live beyond the month he was given. This is the true story at the root of the new film Dallas Buyers Club.
AZT is just being tested in clinical trials and Woodroof tries to get his favorite doctor, “Eve Saks” (Jennifer Garner) to put him into the trial and ensure he gets the medication rather than the placebo (the risk of taking part in a double-blind study). She of course refuses. He finds a way to get some AZT at first, but it doesn’t help. In his search to get some he meets “Rayon” (Jared Leto), a transgendered woman who is also HIV-positive but is getting AZT which she refuses to share with Woodroof.
Newly self-educated on alternative treatments for his illness, Woodroof heads to Mexico where he meets “Dr. Vass” (Griffin Dunne). Vass is a doctor who lost his license in the U.S. and moved South to continue to heal people. His research into AZT has revealed it to be toxic and he prescribes alternative treatments for Ron that make a vast improvement in his condition. These are treatments not available in the U.S.
Using Rayon as a way to gain access to the gay community of Dallas, Woodroof’s entrepreneurial nature results in his “importing” of these alternative treatments for sale. But that’s not legal and he runs afoul of the FDA. So he comes up with the idea of a “club”. Members get the treatments for free, and therefore he isn’t selling unapproved medications. The substances themselves aren’t illegal. But the FDA won’t go quietly and they will continue to work to stop Ron’s operation.
This is not a great film, but part of that is due to the fact that two amazing performances overshadow the storyline. Matthew McConaughey follows up brilliant performances in Bernie, Killer Joe and Magic Mike with what might be his best work to date. After an extended absence, Jared Leto returns to the big screen and most superlatives seem insufficient to describe just how awesome his work here is. Both men underwent major physical transformations for their roles in this film, but that’s only part of their portrayals of these characters. They are so good , the rest of the cast’s fine work seems to be less than it is.
Yes, the filmmakers took poetic license with the true story. The FDA didn’t work all that hard to put a stop to the buyer’s club that Ron Woodroof organized. They treated it with a wink and a nod for the same reasons that AZT was rushed through the approval process. The epidemic of AIDS in that time was killing so many people so quickly that whatever might work would be tried. The value of this ‘fiction’ makes what might have been a pedestrian story into a real drama.