The Dallas Buyers Club

At some point early in the AIDS epidemic it became obvious that the disease afflicted heterosexuals as well as homosexuals.  My memory of this issue as that time is hazy so I don’t know if that realization was the main impetus for the large scale funding of research into AIDS, but it wouldn’t surprise me.  Once the deadly virus jumped out of the gay population that most didn’t have much sympathy for at that time, people started taking it seriously.

This is the backdrop for The Dallas Buyers Club.  Based on a true story that occurred in 1985, the movie is about Ron Woodroof, played by Matthew McConaughey, an electrician who is injured on the job. The doctors treating him discover that he is HIV positive and they give him thirty days to live.  Ron seems to be a typical redneck, bigoted, homophobic and aggressive.  He knows enough to realize that his lifestyle of drug use and casual sex has led to his condition.  But he’s even smarter than that.  Researching AIDS he discovers that there is a treatment called AZT that might extend his life.  Unfortunately, it is only in the trial stage and it has many bad side effects.  Ron sets his mind and considerable ability to the problem.  At first he pays an orderly at the hospital where there are AZT trials going on to steal some for him.  But when they start locking up the drug, the orderly tells him about an American doctor down in Mexico named Dr. Vass, played by Griffin Dunne, who can give him the help he needs.  Dr. Vass tells him to stay away from AZT because of the bad side effects and instead sells him a cocktail of vitamins and proteins that treat the symptoms of AIDS and improves Ron’s health.

Ron senses an opportunity.  Unfortunately there are many people around with AIDS, most of them gay, who could benefit from Dr. Vass’s treatment.  Ron starts importing the drugs illegally from Mexico.  But he needs a contact within the gay community.  He meets fellow AIDS sufferer and drag queen Rayon, played by Jared Leto, who agrees to serve as his liaison.  The two partners outsmart the efforts of the FDC to shut them down.  One problem is that they can’t sell the drugs directly, so they form a club with dues that cover the costs, thus giving the film its title.

Matthew McConaughey’s performance here is the centerpiece of the film.  He alters his body, losing an alarming amount of weight to convincingly play an AIDS sufferer.  So does Jared Leto and several other AIDS patients in the film.  The most admirable thing about McConaughey’s part is how he gets us to sympathize with Ron without really smoothing over any of his rough edges.  This guy is rowdy, aggressive and loud, and he never really gets over his disdain for homosexuals even as he dedicates his life to saving them.  He can also be smooth and charming when he needs to be.  And he’s smart enough to know which of his personas to use.  The character’s journey is not just one of growing to realize that gays are people; it is also a revelation of the hidden strengths of this character.

Jared Leto does a similar thing with Rayon.  He goes from a confident, street smart drag queen who vouches for Ron’s intentions in the gay culture to a person who can’t outrace his demons and who in the end is afraid of death.  It’s a very touching performance.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee’ and the screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack provide us with an intense tightly compacted story that maybe loses a little focus toward the end.  Cinematographer Yves Belanger gives the film a dusty brownish look, not quite sepia, but very much reminiscent of Texas. 

The bravest thing is that nobody shies away from the issues involved.  AZT was seen as the cure, at least by the FDA and company that manufactured it.  The trials were taking a long time while people were dying in the epidemic.  The implication in the film is that the drug company paid off the regulators to push AZT despite the problems with it.  I don’t know how much of this is true but given the way Washington works these days, it seems like it probably is.

Epidemics are tragic and alarming things, but they are also opportunities to make money, apparently.

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