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.