By Jay Sizemore
The introductory sequence of Dallas Buyers Club provides a snapshot of the wild, slipshod life led by would-be cowboy Ron Woodroof, as he is seen having sex with two women at a rodeo, before running bets on how long his friend can stay on the bull. The bet is that he will stay on the full 8 seconds, as per rodeo standards, but when the gate is opened, the bull rider is thrown in two and a half. Of course, the people who placed the bets want their money, and Ron has to run for the hills. This seems like a simplistic archetype of a life on the edge, but when you see the final scene of the film, you realize what an effective metaphor that moment is for the human struggle to survive, how hard it is to keep riding that bull that only wants to kick you off, and how life is rarely going to bend to your will.
This film showcases that struggle in a powerful true story — one that needs to be told, one that needs to be heard — and it is a wonderful backdrop for some of the best acting I have seen since Daniel Day-Lewis played Christie Brown all those years ago. Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof like a man possessed, you can see the passion broiling behind his eyes in every scene. Much has been said of his method-acting weight loss, and it is dramatic to behold, but a body is just a body, what counts is the spirit that resides within. McConaughey provides it in spades, as does his supporting cast member Jared Leto. Leto lost an even more impressive amount of weight, exposing his whole body in one scene that is revoltingly frightening, his emaciated frame showing in one brief moment the drastic toll this disease ravages on its hosts’ flesh. Both of these actors deserve every prize available for the craft of acting this awards season, as they reveal that craft’s capacity for pure human empathy, and they demonstrate how it can realise a great story by giving the audience the most authentic portrayal of the human condition imaginable.
When Ron Woodroof learns that he has the HIV virus, he is told he has thirty days to live at the most. What happens over the course of his struggle for survival is a miraculous journey that any audience should feel grateful to share. Woodroof not only finds a way to beat his dire diagnosis, but uses what he learns to help an unprecedented amount of people who’ve been told there is only one way to survive; with the drug AZT, released from human trials far too early, and sold at $10,000 a treatment. Woodroof finds alternate treatments, and ends up having to challenge the big pharmaceutical companies in the process, a fascinating David vs. Goliath tale that may not have the ending you want it to, although it should be the ending you would expect in a corrupt America.
The most impressive change that occurs throughout the film’s narrative, however, is the personal transformation that Woodroof undergoes as he bonds with gay transvestite Rayon through shared experience, slowly losing his homophobic fear of the unknown as their compassionate friendship blooms. There is an incredibly moving scene in a supermarket where Ron runs into an old work buddy, one with whom he had shared homophobic conversation in the past, and his friend makes an offensive remark about Rayon, so Ron grabs him and forces him to acknowledge the person he just insulted and shake his/her hand. I don’t know that I have ever seen a more effective method of displaying a character’s growth in a movie before.
The script here is pitch-perfect, showing just what it needs to tell its story, and never sinking into didactic preacher mode, or beating the audience over the head with its message. The moments never feel forced. The direction is effortless, the editing superb. It may have been made on a small budget, but I think it worked in the film’s favor, granting it more credibility and an industry-shucking vibe that really suits the content.
This was undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year. A beautiful, stand-out testament of what can be accomplished through sheer will when it seems the whole world stands against you. At the end, when we see Ron ride the bull and outlast the time of the bull rider from the opening scene, the metaphor of life’s uncertainty is really driven home, as someone who is only given thirty days to live survived longer than anyone thought possible. There’s hope to be found in that, and that’s something the world will always need.
Jay Sizemore is a film critic for the magazine.