While still unmistakably a biopic on AIDS victim and later activist Ron Woodroof, the core of Dallas Buyers Club is shared by a distinctly different genre altogether- the social awareness film. Like Blood Diamond (2006) and Hotel Rwanda (2004), Dallas Buyers Club hopes to inform viewers on hot-button issues as it sucks you into the melodrama of its screenplay. As effective and fine films like these often are, they sometimes can be labeled as preachy and artificial, stirring up emotions to make the central issue hits closer to home and we walk away feeling like we can, and should, help change the world. As a consequence, movies such as these can, at least at times, feel manufactured and trite. To compensate for that problem, films that tackle an issue, political or otherwise, surround themselves with name brand product casting, like Leo DiCaprio or, in this case, Matthew McConaughey, who has risen as a redeemed A-lister in Hollywood. 30 Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto (who some may remember as the lead in Requiem for a Dream (2000) and as the "I felt like destroying something beautiful" kid from Fight Club (1999)) joins him as well, and the two serve that purpose to gut-wrenching triumph. Both McConaughey and Leto give performances that are among the very best in 2013, deserving of nominations, and excite in viewers the possibilities of what they can bring to future roles.
Here, the drama hangs on Ron Woofroof, an impetuous party boy who soon learns he has 30 days to live due to contracting HIV and stricken with an irreparably low T-cell count. With a newfound drive to live and maybe make a buck along the way, he slowly assembles an offbeat team of companions to sell experimental drugs that keep both them and their clients living. It's an undeniably moving story, thanks in no small part to the historical story beats, dramatizing the harsh stigmas of the AIDS crisis in the 80s to brutal effect. The film not only aims its gun sights to attacking the pharmaceutical companies chiefly motivated by capital but also to represent the political and personal turmoil experienced by far too many. Seeing characters act out of over the top aggression due to extreme prejudice might seem like a cartoon if it wasn't so clearly accurate and reminds viewers that, although the LGBT movement still has a long way to go, it has already come so far. A trick of the screenplay is to show a global scale of the conflict, such as outraged protestors on television or an almost endless collection of headlines from major newspapers and periodicals, and then to compress the drama onto the shoulders of a few key characters. It's a cheap ploy to get viewers involved, but, cheap or not, it works.
The direction itself is unobtrusive but routine, and there's little in apparent innovation of style. Cinematographer Yves Bélanger's visuals are equally as formulaic and do little to add any dramatic weight to the picture. The visual palette is one of naturalistic lighting and conventional framing with used up metaphors like cross-cutting between depictions of animals and depictions of sex. There is a recurring motif of a sharp high-pitched sound that grows louder and louder whenever Ron experiences an episode due to HIV, and it's the only instance of stylistic invention in pretty much the whole film. Yes, that tool is used in a large variety of movies, marking just how unoriginal the technical achievements are in the film. This is why the performances are of crucial importance. Without them, director Jean-Marc Vallée couldn't have delivered such a potent and relevant film since it is the actors who manifest the sense of relevancy. There's three in particular that thrust the film forward: Ron's the everyman, Rayon (Jared Leto) is a cross-dressing, very open gay man who we meet next to Ron in the hospital (and is almost unrecognizable in the role and not just because of the physical transformation), and Dr. Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner.
The contrast between the three works well and is used to capture multiple vantage points on the drama. This is the screenplay's 'in' to the three distinct professional/social spheres the film explores. The rodeo blue collar district that opens the film depicts rampant homophobia, racism, and reckless partying by Ron and his friends. The hospital story arc shows the political and corporate hierarchy for testing and manufacturing medicines. Finally, Rayon's storyline takes us from the conventional gay couple to the wild partying druggie gay nightclub culture that become the prime customers of the experimental drugs Ron and his colleagues are selling. Chopping the overall narrative into such cleanly divided sections is too neat and tidy for full dramatic credibility, and too many strands are wound too perfectly together. Nonetheless, the script casts a wide net on the different types of stigmatization characters undergo, and the diversity of how prejudice takes its vicious forms can be heartbreaking. The actors sell these moments so well, they earn the cliche of wanting to walk up to the cinema screen and warmly hug the characters for support. They make you feel it, which inexorably lent the film what it needed to preach powerful message of tolerance and love beyond boundaries.