HIV. AIDS. The mere sight of these letters conjures up a slew of thoughts, emotions, images, and assumptions that fire in rapid and seemingly random succession: faggots-junkies-God’s wrath-prostitutes-incurable-should I donate-he should have worn a condom-needles-skinny arms-Africa-don’t get near me- sunken eyes-Tom Hanks-they deserve it-what-why. This mental slideshow is the result of more than 30 years of “awareness” campaigning from organizations of all kinds, from religious groups to Hollywood Oscar winners. Indeed, HIV and AIDS, though not in the same spotlight they had during the 80s and 90s, still have the power to stop people and cause forceful reactions. You can expect a forceful reaction after watching director Jean-Marc Vallée’s biopic Dallas Buyers Club.
To be sure, I reacted forcefully after experiencing (yes, experiencing) this film. Mr. Vallée achieves so much in his 111-minute treatment of the life of Ron Woodroof, there is no doubt that it will soon join the ranks of movies such as And the Band Played On and Philadelphia. Much more than an overly-sentimental, “woe-is-me, you-can-still-get-near-me” disease story, Dallas Buyers Club comments on many issues that are as pertinent today as they were in 1985.
As it is with most stories based on real events, the plot of Dallas Buyers Club is incredible — truth is stranger than fiction. When Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) finds out he is HIV positive and has only 30 days to live, he begins his own research to discover a way to stay alive. Between FDA trials of a new drug called AZT and his own experience, Woodroof finds alternative treatments outside the United States. The 30-day mark comes and goes. Over time, he recognizes the effectiveness and need for these FDA-unapproved drugs and establishes his own distribution center, aptly named the Dallas Buyers Club. Joined by another AIDS patient, Rayon (Jared Leto), Woodroof takes on the FDA and the medical establishment to protect his business and the people it serves.
Not to belabor the obvious, but so much of a movie’s success hinges on the strength of its actors. And it is here that Dallas Buyers Club shines so brightly. In perhaps his best performance ever, Matthew McConaughey gives us an insightful character study of a simultaneously simple and complex man. Woodroof is, to put it crudely, a lowlife redneck. He’s a gambler, a cheat, a drug addict, a womanizer, and a bigot on several fronts. But we like him. For all of his shortcomings as a human, he is also resourceful, determined, creative, and willing to change.
Initially, it’s Woodroof’s scrappy pragmatism and greed that cause him to team up with the transgender Rayon. However, over time Woodroof’s concern for his business partner and the “poofs” that need his drugs becomes genuine. Furthermore, the isolation he experiences at the hands of his former “friends” pushes him deeper into his cause and into the arms of people he used to ridicule. He begins to see his business not only as a money-making venture, but as a way to give health and hope to people. The transformation we see in McConaughey’s Woodroof is dramatic enough to make us challenge our own biases and stereotypes. McConaughey’s success in altering the aforementioned mental slideshow is nothing short of amazing. My hat goes off to him.
Mr. Vallée’s approach to bringing Dallas Buyers Club to life is mercilessly effective. His semi-documentary cinematography instantly draws us into the story’s reality. The use of flashbacks, montage, and “time skips” helps cover a lot of ground, but the temporal shifts never disrupt the clear narrative thread. The days in the movie are intermittently numbered, adding to the sense of urgency and historical accuracy. The musical soundtrack he uses is spot-on, with blues and country songs bolstering the film’s setting and mindset, and some new wave for good measure. Vallée also uses some “staccato” editing to give the film a vibrant edge. Simply put, the technique is perfectly suited for this story, never detracting from the movie’s realism and central focus.
As I said, there is much more to this film than just a disease. To be fair, Dallas Buyers Club does an excellent job of illustrating the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS. However, Woodroof’s emotional transformation brings to light the power of survival instinct, empathy, and having a goal.
Moreover, the film forces us to ask a lot of hard questions: Does the government have the right to say what I can put in my body? What is the FDA really? What are its interests? Who oversees it? How many backroom deals go on between the FDA and pharmaceutical companies? I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any means, but I’m also not so naïve as to believe that the colossal intersection between commerce and health is completely honest.
Whatever your beliefs may be about AIDS, the government’s role in health care, or conspiracies that might or might not exist, the fact remains that Dallas Buyers Club is successful because we can’t help but think about these questions after seeing it. Movies that foment real thought and discussion are hard to come by, so do yourself a favor and see Dallas Buyers Club.
Photos via: Google