Dallas Buyers Club is a social issue movie about how the FDA goes out of its way to keep sick people from getting well by enabling pharmaceutical companies to buy their way into the medicine cabinets and bloodstreams of truly sick people. The story is that of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), an electrician, cowboy, and fervently heterosexual man who gets AIDS. After learning about the value of alternative medicines and non-FDA approved substances, Ron fights to help the AIDS infected community in Dallas. The film is a heartfelt, feel-good biopic, featuring one of McConaughey’s strongest performances, and excellent work from Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner. It is also lacking nuance, sophistication, and the subtlety it truly needs to elevate it to the level it believes it is functioning on.
I really wanted to love Dallas Buyers Club, but what really bothered me as I watched was how awful the film made everyone look. The mid-80s was a time of incredible ignorance as it related to HIV/AIDS. As an audience, we can watch this film and judge Ron’s friends and the medical community for their non-progressive ideas about those suffering with the deadly virus. For example, shortly after Ron learns he is HIV-positive, he goes to the local watering hole and encounters the prejudices of his friends, all whom think he is homosexual, and can infect them at a mere touch. Instead of allowing the scene to play objectively, director Jean-Marc Vallee makes us hate his friends. Ron, who comes across initially as a homophobic, misogynistic redneck, is shown compassion – and even seen as endearing – for his backwards views, but his friends do not invite such compassion. Sure, they are morons, uneducated, and full of wicked prejudice, but so was pretty much most of America during that time.
Even more vilified are those in the medical community, with the exception of the nurturing, virtuous Eve (Jennifer Garner). The men are always standing in the way of progress, and we are never allowed to consider the issue from their side. Ron is smuggling unapproved substances into the United States from a variety of countries and selling them to desperate people. He’s doing his homework, knows his stuff, and is definitely trying to do right by those in need, but couldn’t the film provide an honest counterpoint showing that the FDA might have good reason to be concerned? I’m all in favor of good, old-fashioned villainy by government agencies, but Dallas Buyers Club wants us to take it seriously. When the bad FDA man (Michael O’Neill) practically gloats as he raids Ron’s operation, seizing necessary drugs from those in dire need of effective treatment, it comes across as irresponsible. I wanted Ron to succeed, too, but when his opposition practically twirls his mustache, it feels unfair.
Overall, the film is good. It addresses an issue that is still valid – does the FDA stand in the way of progress? Are they merely a government front for Big Pharma interests? Does the federal government really have the best interests of its people in mind? These are questions our politicians should be addressing, our congress should be debating, and hopefully quality films like Dallas Buyers Club can kickstart conversations. While it does a good job addressing the social issue, it doesn’t play with a fair deck on a narrative level. That’s unfortunate, but not especially damning.
McConaughey really did his job earning the Oscar for this role. The only actor I’ve ever seen look this emaciated was Christian Bale in The Machinist. This sort of commitment is commendable, and it is obvious he is really looking to subvert his image as a good ol’ boy with his recent slate of excellent roles. He’s played a charismatic, lovelorn con with bad teeth (Mud), a sociopathic local cop (Killer Joe), a party-time, but shrewd businessman/stripper (Magic Mike), and a troubled, philosophical detective (True Detective). How many actors have turned their careers around so dramatically, going from punchline to Oscar nominee, as McConaughey? It’s remarkable, and I’m thankful.
Jared Leto is getting a lot of notices as Rayon, a transvestite hooker, who partners up with Ron to build their “buyers club” business. He is excellent, of course, but at times a bit too obvious as he milks every emotional bit for full tearjerker effect. Rayon is most interesting when interacting with Ron, and the scene in which Ron has to defend Rayon in front of one of his old buddies at a supermarket is a highlight of the movie.
One of the best things about Dallas Buyers Club was how it showed the way AIDS treatment was being handled around the world. Ron may be a Dallas cowboy (no pun intended), but he spends time in Mexico and Japan, and taps into markets in Canada, France, and Israel. It definitely shows how narrow minded our medical community can be with treatments – Americans are often so satisfied with ourselves, so certain of our greatness, that we have a hard time acknowledging the hard work and excellence in research emerging from other countries.
Now that Dallas Buyers Club has been nominated for six Academy Awards, reports are surfacing that Ron Woodruff, who was portrayed as incredibly homophobic, was possibly bi-sexual. This article, from Slate, highlights interviews with people who knew Woodruff and were shocked by the film’s portrayal. If this is the case, and Woodruff was not as homophobic as the screenwriter attests, it changes the way the movie is perceived. Suddenly, it plays as a movie in which the gay community needed a straight man to save them. This is similar to all the movies about civil rights in which oppressed black people need a virtuous white person to help them. This would only add to my feelings that the movie makes its villains almost caricatures of badness by suddenly giving us an obvious hero who changes his backwards views. The jury is still out, but it makes the Oscar nominated screenplay seem lazier than I initially thought.