Heart-wrenching “Dallas Buyers” bolstered by award-worthy performances

Ben Conniff

“Dallas Buyers Club” is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, an electrician from Dallas who discovers he has HIV. Doctors give him 30 days to live. What ensues is Woodroof’s seven-year struggle against his decease and the malpractice of doctors and the FDA (In the film, the drugs required for proper HIV/AIDS treatment were not legally sanctioned by the United States government). 

To fight back, Woodroof smuggles the necessary drugs across international borders and opens a “buyers club,” meaning afflicted members could gain access to as much treatment as they needed, without a prescription, as long as they paid their $400 membership fee.That’s chump change when it comes to saving your own life.

“DBC” has been heralded as one of the top films of 2013, and I think that’s a reasonable judgment. This is a stellar film with an intriguing story that’s bolstered by knockout performances from Matthew McConaughey as Woodroof and Jared Leto as Rayon, co-manager of Woodroof’s operation and fellow AIDS patient.

Continuing a strong 2013 track record that includes memorable performances in “Mud” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” McConaughey gives the finest outing of his career in “DBC.” His role as Woodroof required that he lose 45 pounds, which means that the once beefy beach bum with a special place in the hearts of people around the world is nowhere to be found in this film. 

But it’s a perfect role for McConaughey because the character matches the actor’s nuances perfectly. By night, Woodroof is a rodeo cowboy, so McConaughey still maintains a bit of that gruff, wild-west swagger he’s always been known for.

In his role as Rayon, Leto reminds us that he can do more than just sing. The 30 Seconds to Mars front man hasn’t made a feature film in at least four years, and this rivals his turn in “Requiem for a Dream” as his best role.

It’s no easy task showing up to work in drag every day, but Leto pulls it off with a feisty, nuanced and emotionally arresting performance. He’s been earning recognition for his performance from the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with SAG and Golden Globe awards, respectively, for Best Supporting Actor, and is up for the same award at the Oscars.

I liken “Dallas Buyers Club” to fellow Oscar nominee “12 Years a Slave” based on the fact that both are sturdy, well-acted stories that submit their characters to some of the most trying circumstances that any human being should ever have to face. Both are such emotionally taxing films that I can’t see myself rushing back to watch either one again anytime soon. 

You won’t see me rushing out to the store on the first day to pick up these Blu-Rays. They’re both amazing films; they’re just difficult to watch. You won’t find the entertainment value of, say, a “Gravity” or “Captain Phillips” here.

It’s hard not to root for characters like Ron Woodroof in “DBC” or Solomon Northup in “12 Years” because they’re normal folks who find their lives changed for the worse in an instant. If these normal folks can’t triumph over abnormal circumstances, who can we look up to? Everyone needs a hero, but oftentimes the most intriguing ones aren’t the ones wearing a cape.