‘Dallas Buyers Club' brings AIDS back to screen

Posted 7:16am on Sunday, Sep. 15, 2013

You might have thought that the effects of extreme weight loss were the greatest challenges for Dallas Buyers Club star Matthew McConaughey as he tackled the role of Ron Woodroof, the homophobic electrician who became an unlikely pioneer for alternative AIDS treatments in the 1980s. Turns out that wasn’t the case.

“I had plenty of energy,” the actor, who dropped nearly 50 pounds for the part, told an audience at the movie’s world premiere Sept. 7 at the Toronto International Film Festival. What he didn’t have, at least at the beginning, was a fix on how to handle his character’s volatile emotional states.

“Ron’s dealing with different variations of rage. I’m much more of a diplomat myself,” he said, grinning.

Woodroof is, indeed, anything but diplomatic, mouthing off at anyone he believes has crossed him — including but not limited to the doctors he disagrees with, the friends who turn against him after his diagnosis and even his business partners and allies — even as his character finds sweetness beneath all that vinegar. Onstage, McConaughey won over audiences with his charm, the charm that could turn — and this is one of the piquant questions around the film — a difficult piece into something far more accessible to mainstream audiences.

Those audiences will see something that hardly got to them easily. It took more than 20 years to bring Dallas Buyers Club to the screen. On Sept. 7, that journey reached its next stop, with the film playing to a packed and appreciative crowd at the film festival on its way to a buzzy commercial rollout in November.

The fact-based film tracks Woodroof, who was given 30 days to live by doctors in the mid-1980s when his HIV diagnosis first came. But his survival instinct kicks in, and then his entrepreneurial spirit does the same. Before long, Woodroof is importing unapproved medicines from various overseas countries as an alternative to the FDA-sanctioned AZT, which he thinks is poison.

Along the way he also forms some unlikely bonds, including with the AIDS-afflicted Rayon (played by Jared Leto), a cross-dresser who becomes Woodroof’s ally because of his access to the gay community, to whom Woodroof of course wants to peddle the new treatments. (It should be noted the while Woodroof was real, Rayon is fictional, created by screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack.)

As directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, the film has an arty presentation — it’s light on music, even lighter on lighting (there is none that isn’t ambient), and eschews a traditional three-act structure for its character and story. And yet all that only helps it cohere into a more powerful whole.

Compelling cast

Much will be written about the film in the coming weeks — about the way Hollywood has decided to approach AIDS 20 years after Philadelphia (with a lot less easy sentiment), about what this movie has to say about Big Pharma, about how the culture has and continues to view the AIDS crisis, and about the cast.

One of the great revelations in the film is Leto, in a major feature for the first time in more than five years. Leto, who was in character the entire length of the five-week shoot, balances the showiness of the role with more subtle humanity, and the crowd demonstrated its appreciation in Toronto. Jennifer Garner provides plenty of emotional ballast herself as Woodroof’s doctor, who is asked to question the way the establishment is approaching AIDS.

And of course there’s McConaughey. On the set of the movie in December, the actor told the Los Angeles Times that the lack of calories didn’t bother him because of the added mental clarity. “Once you get past the initial hunger, you’re just clearer,” he said as he stood in a Louisiana strip club shooting a scene. “Everything’s clearer.”

What also has become clear is just how subsumed into a character he can become. Like the AIDS crisis itself, McConaughey is an actor whom prestige Hollywood didn’t pay close attention to for many years. With this film, both those things are bound to change.

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