The AIDS crisis seems like a lifetime ago, yet the damage that era inflicted upon an entire generation of citizens lives on in the memories of those who lost loved ones to the disease. In the movies, the subject is rarely addressed anymore, so when one comes along that brings us back to that time, the power it has to remind us of the tragedy is strong. This is a film that does just that and rests almost entirely on the shoulders of two outstanding performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.
McConaughey has had a terrific comeback in the last couple of years, critically at least. After a decade of cashing in with lead roles in mediocre romantic comedies, he seems to have had an epiphany one day and decided to start making good movies again, recapturing the promise he once showed 15 years ago in films like Contact and A Time to Kill. Starting with 2011's The Lincoln Lawyer, he's turned in one great performance after another in Bernie, Mud, Killer Joe, and Magic Mike, now capping it off with the most challenging role of his career. He lost 45 pounds to play Ron Woodrooff, the hard partying Texas playboy, who was diagnosed with the AIDS virus in 1985 and given just 30 days to live. Amazingly, Ron defies the doctor's prognostication and figures out a way to keep himself alive on varying doses of vitamins, minerals and alternative medications procured from Mexico. This true story shows how the FDA refused to approve these drugs and were paid big money by the pharmaceutical companies to push AZT, at the time the only known drug to treat the virus, which when used alone, actually tended to make patients worse.
Woodrooff educated himself on the disease and used his savvy street smart ways to smuggle the drugs in from other countries and start a buyer's club in Texas, where AIDS victims paid for memberships to receive the meds for free. It's an emotional story on its own, enhanced by McConaughey's deeply powerful performance as the man who starts off as a homophobic bigot with no responsibility for himself or others, and due to the desperate nature of his illness, becomes more caring and far more responsible, learning to have compassion for the majority of those stricken with the disease, who at the time were gay men. His partner in the formation of the Dallas Buyer's Club was a transsexual named Rayon, played by an unrecognizable Jared Leto, who himself underwent a dramatic transformation for the part, after not having acted in a movie for six years. His Rayon is in all ways playful, flamboyant and yet subtle at the same time, never overtly drawing attention to himself even though this is a role that could have easily been played with scenery chewing antics by another actor. Rayon's fate is made more effective by Leto finding the sorrowful humanity in the character.
In most ways this is a traditional biopic, told in a very straightforward manner by director Jean Marc-Vallee with little to no flashy directorial touches, but the performances and subtlety of the script elevate the material in a big way. Nothing is overly sentimentalized, but the impact remains strong, due to the heartbreaking true nature of the story itself. When you see a movie like this, you realize how few movies look back on this tragic time in history that's actually fairly recent, and how valuable it is to remember the callousness with which a whole group of people were shunned by a society led by a government that did virtually nothing in response to one of the worst public health crises in American history. This movie reminds us once again that it's worth remembering.