Some films live in the head and some in the heart. “Dallas Buyers Club” does shuttle runs between the two. The head tells you that when a homophobic Texan asshole rides to the rescue of gay men dying of AIDS at the height of the 1980s crisis, then the film smacks of straight white wish fulfilment. The heart tells you that you are watching an uplifting true story of redemption where said asshole refuses to accept his death sentence, fights the monolithic American pharmaceutical companies and conquers his homophobia.
The asshole in question is Ron Woodroof–a redneck renaissance man; he’s an electrician, gambler, petty drug dealer and sometime rodeo rider. He straddles bulls and hookers with equal abandon, a porn crazed sex addict, and God only knows what he’d have made of the Internet. Ron is a waif and stray, the Marlboro Man with the life squeezed out of him. He has that rasping cough, the skeletal frame, so frighteningly familiar in the 80s, now far too familiar to be frightening-out of sight, out of mind?
After an accident at work Ron wakes up in hospital to be greeted by two doctors, Sevard and Saks, who explain that he has AIDS. Saks is sympathetic but Doctor Sevard’s bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired. Ron’s is a whole lot worse, “I ain’t no faggot cocksucker.” Earlier we’ve seen Rock Hudson’s face on the front pages, that Hollywood vitality laid low by something so unknown, so dreadful we felt like it was the end of days. Looking at him, hearing his low T-count and remembering back to those early years of popular misconceptions and prejudice, we know Ron will be dead within weeks.
Except Ron doesn’t accept his fate. At first he ransacks his home to find dollar bills folded neatly in cassette tape cases or behind a painting. These were probably stashed for a rainy day to be spent on cocaine and rodeo groupies. Now he’s buying AZT stolen by a hospital porter because he doesn’t fancy the odds of the clinical trials run by the FDA. In these trials half the patients get the drug and the other half get a placebo. When his AZT source dries up Ron drives to Mexico to buy more.
Nothing motivates quite like necessity and in Mexico Ron discovers from Doctor Vass that AZT is poisonous in the quantities prescribed. Vass gives Ron a concoction of alternative medicines and teaches him which foods are healthy. Ron’s condition improves and with it his entrepreneurial spirit returns. What if he can sell these unlicensed drugs in America to other AIDS sufferers? This is not the spirit of good will but the laissez-faire attitude of Reaganomics taking advantage of a (deadly) gap in the market.
Still Ron may have the product but he doesn’t have the clientele. Rayon, a transgender woman, gets Ron an in with the gay community for a percentage of the profits and a cut of the new drugs. As their bitter sweet business booms they establish the “Dallas Buyers Club” of the title, essentially a membership system that costs $400 per month to circumvent FDA regulations on unapproved drugs. Turning detective, Ron ploughs through obscure medical journals, criss-crossing the globe to smuggle new drugs into the States, his hard fought expertise prolonging his life by years.
There is no doubting the power that “Dallas Buyers Club” exercises over its audience. Ron is charming, infuriating and ingenious, we can’t help but admire his determination in the face of certain death. His growing relationship with Rayon is ironically the closest thing Ron will ever get to domestic bliss. When they finally embrace as friends you can feel the love and angst released from their dying frames tingle over the screen. It is the greatest moment in Jean-Marc Vallée’s movie-and perhaps the most calculated.
Cinema has a strange habit of captivating and manipulating you when you least expect it. Who’d have thought that Matthew McConaughey would continue his run of stunning character roles? His “McConaissance” has seen him shed his rom-com image for a line in dark, satirical modern Cowboys – his work in “Dallas Buyers Club” thoroughly deserves an Oscar for his startling transformation into Ron. Sometimes we have to accept that we’ve been had, that the slick Hollywood machine has dismantled our achingly cool force field.
Ron’s story has undergone a ruthlessly efficient makeover. Friends and relatives certainly didn’t think he was homophobic and he is often cited as being bisexual. He did smuggle those drugs and increase the life expectancy of many in the club. Hollywood never let a small detail like the truth get in the way of a good story so Jared Leto’s tender Rayon and Jennifer Garner’s no nonsense Doctor Saks are composite figments of a scriptwriters imagination, superbly acted conduits to help bring home the Oscar for McConaughey’s worthy star turn.
Does “Dallas Buyers Club” hijack the history of the battle so hard fought by the AIDS activists throughout the plague years? Or should we be grateful that this moving film has had the courage to tackle a subject so often overlooked by Hollywood? Have we moved backwards when gay characters are portrayed as subservient and reliant on a straight homophobe not matter how sainted he later becomes?
“Dallas Buyers Club” is a complicated watch, one for the head and the heart and if it serves only one purpose then it should be to point the audience in the direction eloquently written about by Patrick Mulcahey in “The Huffington Post”
“We can honor the heroes of our plague years who staved off our obliteration with no thought toward being played by movie stars. Every gay man, anyone ever affected by AIDS, should know the name Martin Delaney. Learn about him in The New York Times or The Lancet or the American Journalism Review. See why Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, flew to San Francisco to deliver his eulogy. Read Jonathan Kwitny’s “Acceptable Risks” and Arthur Kahn’s “AIDS, the Winter War.” Both books are going out of print. Don’t let the story of what really happened, and who made it happen, disappear with them.”