‘Dallas Buyers Club’ storytelling at its finest

By Karsten Burgstahler


I am a sucker for a good story. Sure, acting can make or break a movie. Cinematography can take the monotonous and make it beautiful. However, you need a story worth telling to make the production worth it.

Too many studios have forgotten this. The stars and effects sell the movie, not the script, some cold studio executive is swearing right now in his boardroom.


But why not have it both ways?

In the true story “Dallas Buyers Club,” (Rated R, 117 Min.) director Jean-Marc Vallee and writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack have their cake and eat it too. Matthew McConaughey is a total knockout as he plays against type as Ron Woodruff, a rodeo rider perfectly comfortable living in his racist, homophobic skin. He sleeps with multiple prostitutes and shoots up cocaine without the smallest regard to the negative effects of his fast lifestyle.

It is the mid-’80s, a time when those with AIDS were slapped with a pariah sign. Woodruff learns he has contracted HIV, which he automatically believes he cannot have, because he equates it to homosexual behavior. Woodruff is given 30 days to live, but manages to stay alive using a test drug. Before long, he heads to Mexico to get his hands on something stronger, but not approved by the FDA. He brings the drugs back to Dallas and sets up a “buyers club,” charging people $400 per month to join, but providing them with the HIV medicines they need to survive. The very people Woodruff had written off become his clients and friends.

“Dallas Buyers Club” exists at the intersection of great storytelling and great performances. Woodruff’s story is larger-than-life and makes for a compelling narrative — against all odds, he stayed alive and bucked the system while doing so. Woodruff’s determination shows that when it seems there is no hope there can be a way. The movie deals with an issue still alive around the world — we have made strides in helping those affected by AIDS, but we still have not found the cure.

So, we have a great foundation, something from which McConaughey can build his character. He is so skinny here you would hardly recognize him, if not for the macho swagger he exudes. But this is not friendly, carefree McConaughey. This is a harsh man unwilling to accept a reality outside of his own little world. There is genuine character development here, and that is partly because of the masterful writing and partly because McConaughey manages to move from inherently unlikeable at the beginning to the underdog we root for at the end.

Several stellar supporting actors assist Woodruff’s journey. Jared Leto plays Rayon, a transgendered woman affected by AIDS. Like McConaughey, Leto loses himself in the role and is unrecognizable, but brings emotional resonance to Rayon’s struggle; the bond that forms between the two feels real. Also supporting is Jennifer Gardner as Eve Saks, a doctor who helps Ron when he is first admitted to the hospital and eventually helps Ron keep the club running (both voluntarily and involuntarily) after the FDA comes for him.

Vallee keeps the movie going at a brisk pace and lets the story, not the dialogue, do the preaching. It is the combination of the unique tale and the great performances that make “Dallas Buyers Club” a shining example of how important the sum of the parts, not just the visual effects or the acting, is in film. There are dozens of stories waiting to be told. Let us make sure that it is not too long before another one as unique as this comes along.


Karsten Burgstahler can be reached at [email protected] or 536-3311 ext. 261.