Could be that the very best thing about Dallas Buyers Club is that it instantly and effortlessly brushes aside any preconceived snarkery one might bring to it. You know, like how the lead actor's dramatic weight loss in preparation for portraying a dying man — in a based-on-a-sad-true-story issues drama, no less — is a sure bid for an Oscar nomination by a one-time rom-com actor.
If and when that Oscar bid comes, it'll be genuinely deserved. There is nothing showy or sentimental in Matthew McConaughey's rough-edged portrait of a small-minded man who learns the world is so much bigger than he ever wanted to accept. But there is enormous compassion, of the sort that seems to imply that McConaughey cares more about doing justice to a hard-to-like yet ultimately honorable man than he does about how he comes off as he's going about that task.
McConaughey's Ron Woodroof is a swaggering bigot when we meet him in early 1980s Texas. But an accident at work leads to a hospital visit, which leads to the discovery that not only is he HIV-positive, his AIDS is so far advanced that the doctors figure he's got maybe a month to live.
Two stories spin off from that moment, one personal and one political.
The personal is Woodroof's transformation from a guy who rejects the notion that he join an AIDS support group because it's for "fags" to a guy whose best friend and business partner is a transgender woman, Rayon (Jared Leto, who is magnificent here). Screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack offer simple scenarios that smack Woodroof with the abrupt understanding his new reality brings, as when his gang of buddies suddenly treats him, literally, like an untouchable leper.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée neither embellishes these moments nor lingers on them. One scene, in which Woodroof comes to Rayon's defense in the middle of a supermarket, is over before we quite realize what an about-face it represents.
The political story is the deplorable reality of AIDS research at the time, and how Woodroof is forced to invent his own treatment with illegally imported drugs. That leads to him taking on the Food and Drug Administration, which becomes an accidental pushing for big changes in how AIDS is treated in the United States.
Woodroof's experience acquiring illegal recreational drugs helps him at first, and the same sorts of things that pot and coke dealers do — smuggling and selling on the sly — soon morph for Woodroof and Rayon into a sort of syndicate. Using "the Dallas Buyers Club," they can get around FDA restrictions on selling unapproved pharmaceuticals brought in from other countries. The idea is that you can give them away to club members who've paid a fee to join, but you can't sell them the drugs directly.
It's ridiculous, and that's the point. Dallas Buyers Club may be historical, but it does an excellent job of tapping into outrage over the state of healthcare in America, then and now, and suspicions about the FDA putting corporate profits above citizens' wellbeing. We may have gotten more enlightened as a culture about AIDS victims — a Ron Woodroof today would not be so casual about his (former) homophobia — but this story is far from a piece of pure history.