By Lane Roberts
Remember when Matthew McConaughey was nothing more than a beefcake? Someone you could count on to take his shirt off for no apparent reason other than to show just how muscular and tan he was? Sure, he was nice to look at as the leading man in many a rom-com during the 2000s — The Wedding Planner (2001), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), Failure to Launch (2006), Fool’s Gold (2008) and Ghost of Girlfriends Past (2009) — but chiseled abs alone do not a serious actor make.
It is ironic, then, that McConaughey’s first Oscar nomination celebrates a role in which he sacrifices his signature physique, losing 40 pounds to play Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, a Texas man diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live.
Ron gets AIDS in 1985, a time when doctors knew little about the disease and even less about medications to manage it. When Ron is given his diagnosis, he lashes out at his doctors, enraged that they “mistakenly” diagnosed him with a disease that “only faggots could have.”
Ron, a homophobe, is quickly alienated from his group of work buddies who, like many people at the time, believed that AIDS was a ‘gay’ disease. In fact, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) was the name first proposed in 1982 to describe the cluster of symptoms of what is now known as AIDS. Ron initially tries to ignore his diagnosis but soon researches the disease and learns that AIDS can be transmitted by intravenous drug use and unprotected sex, two of Ron’s favorite pastimes.
Desperate, he goes back to the hospital to find his doctor, Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who tells him of an antiviral drug, azidothymidine (AZT), that is being put through clinical trials to determine whether or not it prolongs the lives of AIDS patients. In the human trials, Saks explains, half of the patients are given the drug and the other half receive placebos. When Ron tells Dr. Saks that he will pay her outright for the drug, she refuses, telling him that the clinical trials are the only way to determine whether or not the drug works.
Outraged that he is refused a drug that he believes will save his life, Ron finds other ways to get the AZT. He bribes a hospital worker to smuggle him the drug; however, as soon as he begins taking it, he suffers from severe side effects, which are exacerbated by his continued cocaine use. He finds himself, once again, in the hospital, where he meets Rayon (Jared Leto), an HIV-positive transgender woman.
As his health declines, Ron drives to Mexico to find more AZT. Instead, he meets Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who tells him that AZT is “poisonous” and instead prescribes him Zalcitibine (ddC) and peptide T (a protein), which are not approved by the FDA in the United States. Seeing an opportunity for business, Ron loads his car with the drugs and heads back to the States, intent on making a fortune selling the drugs on the street.
Back in the U.S., he runs into Rayon once again and, after realizing that she could provide him with a larger client base, reluctantly agrees to take her as a business partner. The unlikely duo establishes the “Dallas Buyers Club,” charging members $400 a month in exchange for any and all alternative AIDS drugs.
Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club tells the perfect antihero tale. Ron is, on one hand, careless, aggressive and bigoted; on the other, he is loyal, driven and benevolent. His methods of helping people are not altogether legal, but his reasons for doing so are honest and just. McConaughey and Leto are flawless, both funny and tragic and almost completely unrecognizable as Woodroof and Rayon.
Dallas Buyers Club does not have a happy ending — most AIDS stories don’t — but it serves as an important reminder of the strength of the human spirit.