Due to unprecedented and tight budget constraints, Dallas Buyers' Club was shot in just twenty-five days, with no rehearsals or read-throughs, no customary lighting set-ups, hand-held cameras for scenes of less than fifteen minutes in length and no post-production loops. Despite these fiscal short cuts, this movie turned out to be the sleeper hit of the year, and won an impressive hat-trick of Academy Awards.
Set in 1985 Dallas, it tells the story of Ron Woodroof, played by an uber-skinny Matthew McConnaughey, a homophobic electrician and rodeo bull rider who, due to his habitual cocaine use and addiction to sex with both prostitutes and promiscuous women, learns that he is HIV positive with only a thirty day life expectancy. He learns of a drug that is working for people with AIDS, but it is only available in Mexico through an ex-doctor with a revoked medical license. He travels to Mexico, meets Dr Vass, and begins treatment; his condition improves and he decides to bring the drugs back to America to sell to patients with AIDS. The Dallas Buyers' Club is created, and its members are able to purchase the drugs that they need for a monthly buy-in fee of four hundred dollars. Of course, the FDA don't like this at all, and the government attempts to prevent him from selling the drugs on American soil, but as he has done all of his life, Ron finds a way around the system, and continues to sell to his clients. The film shows how HIV was grossly misunderstood in the mid to late 1980s, and stigma outweighed bona fide research in the quest to find a workable and effective treatment, as well as a cure.
The film is based on a true story; the real-life Ron Woodroof was a slightly less homophobic character than the man portrayed on the big screen, although he readily admitted in an interview that his views on homosexuality changed greatly after he contracted the disease; he lost most of his friends and experienced a level of social rejection that both shocked and altered him; however, other characters in the film are entirely fictional, including Jared Leto's Oscar-winning trans-gender drug addict Rayon, and Jennifer Garner's Dr Eve Saks, who was an amalgamation of doctors described to the writers by AIDS patients and activists during their research. Thanks to incredible performances by both McConnaughey and Leto, Dallas Buyers' Club became the fifth movie in history to win both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor accolades from the Academy. A third Oscar, for Best Make-Up and Hairstyling rounded out the trio of wins. Despite Leto's plethora of wins across the board for his portrayal of Rayon, there was criticism from within the LGBTQ community because the producers had cast a straight actor in the role of a transgender character, and the feeling was that an opportunity had been missed. Widespread critical acclaim for the movie, and particularly for the performances within in, did not spread to the medical community, who felt that the film endorsed medical treatments that had not been tried or tested, and that the film portrayed the opinions of a "quack" as having more weight and authenticity behind them than the research of licensed physicians.
The low-budget independent film went on to gross over fifty five million dollars - not bad for a movie made for less than five million, and a limited opening in selected theaters only.