We are brought up in America to trust voices of authority, especially if they’re wearing a doctor’s coat and have big important government agencies like the FDA behind them. We are taught to trust the medical industry because of course they have our best interests at heart. Our for-profit industry is supposedly the best in the world because it costs the most. That’s what the Republicans keep telling us, anyway, to weasel out of universal health care. The Dallas Buyers Club, a new film by Jean-Marc Vallee, shows what can happen when that system fails.

Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of a redneck homophobe, Ron Woodruff, who contracts HIV presumably from a prostitute. He doesn’t find out about it until he ends up in the ER for something unrelated. He resists the diagnosis because that’s something only “f—-” get. The coke, sex and alcoholic addicted Woodruff is told he has very little options except to wait around until the government does long term studies for AZT’s effectiveness. Oh, and he has around 30 days to live.

Woodruff eyes his options. Sit around and wait to die or try alternative methods, even “illegal” ones. Once he figures out that the meds are helping him he sets up his own Buyers Club to help other victims, and weighing no more than a paper weight faces down the FDA and the doctors who treat him.

The message of the film is loud and clear, and the film itself takes its place among the year’s best primarily due to the film’s two central performances, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. Both actors lost significant amounts of weight (McConaughey lost 47 pounds) and their faces leave torturous imprints. You can’t shake them. It isn’t just that they are dead men walking, ravaged by HIV and AIDS, clinging to the green as long as they possibly can – it’s that they are almost completely alone in this – except for each other and the few friends who hang at the fringes.

What a masterful actor McConaughey has become. Having watched his career grow, starting way back with Dazed and Confused, but through last year’s three diverse performances to this year’s – Mud, the upcoming Wolf of Wall Street, and the one to top all others, Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey has dug down deeply, committed fully, and found the spectral light of humanity along the way.

Very nearly stealing McConaughey’s thunder is Jared Leto as Rayon, Woodruff’s trans partner (as he clarifies, “business partner”). Leto’s character feels so real, with so much charisma you can’t look at anyone else when he’s on screen. And it isn’t just that he’s playing it very fem, flirting with the edges of camp. There is a whole story told in Leto’s eyes, one you don’t see fully until he has to repress his identity to have a simple conversation with his father. Leto’s Rayon is impossible to resist. It is no wonder the formerly homophobic Woodruff calls him such a close friend. You can’t not fall in love, no matter how you define yourself sexually. He’s maybe the big screen’s biggest charmer since Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, if you insist, Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook.

Watching AIDS ravage Rayon and Woodruff it is a reminder of what kind of pieces of trash AIDS patients were back in the day when AIDS was thought of as a “gay” disease. The moments where the characters simply hug each other is so meaningful because back then no one would even touch AIDS patients, let alone hug them. That’s why it was such a big deal when Princess Diana hugged the suffering victims so publicly. That simple act alone really transformed our thinking. If you can’t imagine what that was like to live through it you’ll certainly get the message loud and clear by watching this film.

The thing about the movie is that it also shows what a universal plague AIDS has been, and how big of a mistake it was for the medical industry and our global community to ghettoize the disease as “a gay thing.” Even now, hundreds continue to suffer and die from AIDS in other countries all over the world. Why? Because medication is so hard to come by. This is also one of the primary points of Dallas Buyers Club. That human lives are managed by for-profit asshole bureaucrats. What happened in the 1980s with the AZT studies and the way too slow progress on AIDS medication is a shameful black mark in our history, especially when we’re supposedly leading the world in medical research.

If survival is the key to this year’s Best Picture contenders we have found another contender in that regard, maybe the best of them all, in McConaughey’s Ron Woodruff. The true story of Woodruff’s backdoor drug selling operation to help victims of AIDS get better when our government was dragging its heels on new medication that might have helped save lives. If these patients were going to die anyway why not give them experimental meds?

Dallas Buyers Club is about two things – exposing the mistakes made while trying to find a “cure” for AIDS, and it’s about the the performances. It’s also about how vulnerable we are – as humans, our fate in the hands of powerful corporations who put profit over human lives. The tragedy of this is beyond measure. The wake of the AIDS epidemic in this country and throughout the world is disgraceful. We could have done better. We can still do better.

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  • Lisamcg2

    What a great review! Makes me even more excited to watch this film and see these wonderful performances 🙂

  • Eric P.

    We can certainly do better. The way this country reacted to the AIDS epidemic was disgraceful. “How to Survive a Plague” was a harrowing reminder of that, and it sounds like this film is as well. HIV/AIDS is still a problem in this country (not as bad as Africa, but a big problem nonetheless). The drug companies play a huge part in the problem. A very dear friend of mine just ended his own life because he could not face his diagnosis. It is a shame, I hope to see a day when this disease is not solely a political issue but a human issue.

  • Patrick

    I was really hoping this would be at Telluride (I’m greedy, I know) but I’m glad to read that you liked it. I read the coverage from Indiewire and was concerned that it might have been a misfire.

  • Bryce Forestieri

    The best film I ever saw -with the AIDS epidemic/crisis as setting- was André Téchiné’s THE WITNESSES. I wouldn’t call it a great film, but by far my favorite.

  • Isaac

    Any thoughts on Jennifer Garner’s performance?

  • How to Survive a Plague is a brilliant film.

    Now we need a film about what a terrible effect the catholic church’s stance on contraception has on the spread of the disease, particularly in Africa where the religion is flourishing.

  • steve50

    Although it’s about a period (and public mindset) I don’t really want to revisit, I’ve got to see what these guys do with their roles. Especially Leto – if ever there was a fine actor flying under the radar for so many years, he’s it.

  • Tony

    Our healthcare system is too expensive, and “medical” bureaucrats (not insurance companies) failed my late mother, but it’s pretty damn good. Which country has made the most advances with HIV and helped the most people around the world? Which country has won the most prizes for cutting edge and complex research, development of equipment, techniques, medications for the entire spectrum of ailments? Ponder this: There are 5 times as many MRI machines per capita here than in Canada.

    P.S. The Catholic Church has had its fair share of screw-ups, but Pope John Paul II was just as important as Diana, as far as not treating AIDS patients as lepers.

    P.P.S. It’s been nice to see Matthew’s career turn around lately.

  • Unlikely hood

    It’s better than Angels in America? That’s hard to believe.

    Didja see And the Band Played On? It’s got all the cinematographic flourish of bad Stanley Kramer (it’s no Angels in America), but there’s something about it being made in 1993, pre-Philadelphia, at a time of real homophobia, with so many A-listers – Ian McKellen, Steve Martin, Richard Gere, Lily Tomlin, Alan Alda – I just get misty eyed thinking about their relative bravery then.

  • g

    I’ve been so impressed with Matthew the last 2 years, I can’t wait for this movie.

    I also loved how to survive a plague last year, it was such an eye opener for me. I was a little girl when the aids crisis hit the world. A lot of mistakes were made like the lack of funding for research, but we have to give credit to the scientists who worked for years to develop the very successful treatment we have today. I just wish everyone in the world could afford it and have access to it.

  • steve50

    Was going to shrug this off, but…

    Not sure what you’re addressing, Tony, but the film looks at the period prior to the social and medical advances you speak of. If you lived thru that period and experienced the crisis firsthand on a daily basis, you’d know that progress – even the desire or interest for it – was excrutiatingly slow in coming.

    And Paddy’s absolutely correct – when JPII went to Africa and preached against any form of birth control, incl use of condoms, he essentially barebacked the social conscience of an entire continent. Not the stuff of saints.

    It was bigotry, ignorance, and political footdragging that allowed the disease to take hold. It’s the pharmaceutical megalodons that continue to keep medication out of reach for most of the world’s population.

    Hard to muster pride in western medicine with all that history on the balance sheet.

  • I must have watched PREFONTAINE 20 or 30 times. I hope he gets his due. I just worry he’ll steal Matthew’s thunder.

  • Tony

    I agree with you re contraception. The Church should abandon contraception and focus only on abortion. The change would be easy enough to explain without seeming wishy-washy or craven.

    As for the era of the movie, I remember the time quite well. I just turned 49 (ouch) on Sunday, and I was born and raised in San Francisco (now living in the burbs). Yes, the initial response wasn’t very good; shock and fear will do that. Great strides since.

  • Rod Espinosa

    I like this blog, but it would be great if you could keep your political comments out of your reviews, I don’t think they are in any way constructive, accurate or add to the review of the movie.

  • rufussondheim

    Another big push for How to Survive a Plague, it should provide a great context for you to enjoy this film if you don’t know much about the subject.

    Still love Longtime Companion and I still rank it #1 on my list of favorite movies. I know it has its faults, but damnit, that scene on the beach just slays me every time.

  • Film Fatale

    Rod, get over it. Movies and those who love them do not exist in some antiseptic vacuum of “objectivity” — especially when a movie has a sociopolitical subtext. Your perspective on film must be very limited, period.

  • AdamA

    I’m compelled to wonder if you’ve ever read this blog before, let alone read it enough to like it. This mode of critique and reflection would be familiar to you after just a few posts, at which point you could have opted for a different blog.

  • AdamA

    Strictly speaking as a former comp instructor: Your language for describing the outrageous behavior of our government, our corporations, our media, and our entire culture during the 80s and early 90s (it “wasn’t very good”???) does not make you more convincing in your defense of the health care system in the U.S.–it makes you less convincing. You’d be better served with plain, honest assessment of what anyone could see was an atrocity, before moving on to your defense.

    Strictly speaking as a person who grew up in poverty: the health care system hardly needs your defense. It has billions of dollars, built on millions of (disproportionately gay, female, trans, non-white, poor, disabled) corpses to hire a much more capable defender than you.

    Strictly speaking as a gay man: you can take your 49 and San Francisco roots and jump in a lake. Ask a black trans positive hooker in Chicago how awesome the strides have been.

  • AdamA

    Great review, Sasha. Excited for this. Sorry I am grumpy elsewhere in these comments.

  • Bryce Forestieri

    Oh yeah I totally get that, THE WITNESSES (2007) deserves no credit whatsoever for timeliness or bravery. And, as you said AND THE BAND PLAYED ON is quite messy, but the players are just too good to pass. Also, I don’t think anything beats LONGTIME COMPANION as opportune -in the best possible way. I’m just really biased toward execution and characters, and nothing beats THE WITNESSES in those departments. Not saying that Techine is one of those consummate filmmakers, because he isn’t, but his concise effort was more satisfying than everything else I’ve seen.

    p.s. I really really liked ANGELS IN AMERICA, but it could be a chapter shorter. I think about 75-80% of what I’d get rid of would come from the last one, Heaven, I’m in Heaven

  • Tero Heikkinen

    “Even now, hundreds continue to suffer and die from AIDS in other countries all over the world.”

    There’s a word missing. Hundreds of thousands? As at least a million people DIES of AIDS every year. Thousands in USA alone, in 2013, with that “superior” health care system where you top Canada by having 5 times more of them machines that go ‘ping’. Or maybe it was meant to be like NOW. On this very second.

  • Tony

    This is a comments section on a blog. I’m not trying to write the great American novel here and impress everybody with my prose.
    I think my choice of words was appropriately even-handed. If ALL of the entities (and the people who comprise them) had behaved “outrageously” in the mid-80s and early 90s, the later years would have been just as bad.
    I just get tired of the relentless crapping on America. You want utopia? Good luck finding it. When people seem to hate more about a place than they love about it, I’m amazed that they bother staying put.
    Why should I shed a tear for a Chicago hooker, unless someone put a gun to the hooker’s head? That person chose money over dignity.
    I’m not going to reciprocate by telling you to go “jump in a lake.” I’ll only say, “Lighten up.”

  • Tony

    Our healthcare system doesn’t give people HIV (or make them obese, etc.). What it has done is treat people, many of whom wouldn’t have a chance at extra years elsewhere.

  • Tero Heikkinen

    Sure, sure. But you have to pay a lot of money for those extra years. It’s not fair for poor people.

  • Bryce Forestieri

    appreciate, Ryan 🙂

  • Unlikely hood

    Longtime Companion is great. I think of it as Boys in the Band without the camp. Not hating on camp, but there needed to be a non-camp version, with fewer histrionic speeches.

    I’ll have to check out the Witnesses.

  • rufussondheim

    Our healthcare system is shockingly bad for how much we pay, when it comes to things like infant mortality and average life expectancy, the US ranks disturbingly low considering our per capita healthcare costs are far and away the most in the world.

  • steve50

    (I’ve got your back, Rufus – if the link works, of course)


  • steve50
  • Christophe

    Humph, I expected the society pages to be about cocktail parties and polo games… Interesting graph nevertheless, unsurprisingly Japan has the best model (relatively low cost, longer life expectancy) and I guess it is due to a healthy diet and zen lifestyle, though I’ve heard that the popularity of American-style junk food and over-zealousness at work were starting to take their toll on the Japanese population.

  • Tony

    People’s choices cause our infant mortality rate to be higher than it should be and our life expectancy to be lower than it should be. Prospective mothers downing booze and doing drugs. Folks of all ages eating fast food. We drive more, so more lives cut short by auto accidents. Gang violence. Etc.

    Absolutely, we pay too much money for our system. The quality, though, is very high.

  • You should get out and meet actual people instead of reading about them. Everything you say is straight from the propaganda machine and has next to nothing to do with movies or the Oscar race. Why are you here?

  • Tony

    Why are any of us “here?”

    I’m not the one who likes to bring current events, etc. into movie discussions, but that’s popular ’round these parts, so I do, too.

    Don’t presume to know whom I have or haven’t met. You’d be surprised at how much battle I have done with the healthcare industry (which is much harder to deal with than the insurance industry). Yet, I still manage to see the good that it has done where applicable.

  • Chris

    Having seen the film at TIFF, I disagree that he presumably got the virus from a prostitute. There is a very brief flashback, a rapid edit, of a male bathhouse included in the library scene where Matthew`s character researches the disease.

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