What if you woke up in a hospital and the doctors announced you had 30 days to live? What if you were a roughneck oilfield electrician, homophobic rodeo rider, semi-professional con man, and learned you had a terminal case of the dread Rock Hudson disease?
Meet Ron Woodroof, played in Dallas Buyers Club by a powerful Matthew McConaughey, whose dedication to this role led him to drop 40 pounds, so that he appears a skeletal shadow of his former self. His unlikely sidekick Rayon, a transvestite druggie portrayed by Jared Leto (also AIDS-skeletal), pairs up with Ron in the fight for their lives that is the core of the film.
These two characters are profoundly flawed. It’s all the more unexpected that they become heroes, largely unsung by history. This classic story of redemption is Lazarus’s moment to win another chance to do some good in the world if and while time remains.
It’s Dallas, Texas, and it’s 1985. We are reminded of the time frame by the malevolently leering, out-of-focus wall poster image of Ronald Reagan, the U.S. president on whose watch AIDS first erupted, and who infamously refused to publicly utter the word AIDS until 1987, after more than six years in office. It was a time when wide swaths of the political, cultural, religious, and medical establishment would have been just as happy to see this plague wipe out the whole HIV-infected population.
But there was resistance. ACT-UP, the community of enraged “diseased pariahs,” would not accept the lay-down-and-die model, adopting the slogan “Silence = Death” in response to official inaction. They could not wait for the ponderous FDA new drug approval protocols to indifferently sentence all those people to inevitable death. Protesters demanded action on fast-track drug trials, more research, humane laws and care. Like the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, these doomed warriors had nothing to lose.
The drug AZT, originally designed for treating cancer but found ineffective, was in the trial stage for HIV, but patients kept dying. Spurred to the barricades by medical emergency, Ron starts investigating alternative therapies, and stumbles on some promising treatments abroad. The buyers club that he forms to distribute these unauthorized meds – with Rayon, in order to gain access to the gay community – starts thriving with customers granted new hope. As the local AIDS doctor tells Ron, “Frankly, we’re surprised you’re even alive.”
Almost 30 years since those days, and 20 years since the pathbreaking AIDS film Philadelphia, we see in Dallas Buyers Club the intimate relationship between Big Pharma and government, the FDA and the hospitals and doctors who for a handsome price make cozy with the system. Everyone is on the take except the consumers – and even some of them. Has so much changed? Screenwriters Craid Borten and Melisa Wallack have clearly absorbed the lessons from the AIDS crisis, pointing by inference to the indecency of the whole drug-healthcare-profit nexus that we still endure. One could say this is the feature film response to Michael Moore’s documentary SiCKO.
Contrasting the normative “good ol’ boy” culture of the Southern working class with the outlier local homosexual community, director Jean-Marc Vallée shows the life-and-death necessity for people to form coalitions, even (especially!) with those we may seem to have so little in common. Newspaper headlines, and well-selected clips from contemporary TV news, show how consciousness around the politics of healthcare took a great leap forward in that era.
And the film shows how each community indulges in its own forms of self-medication, not just unorthodox AIDS experiments, but alcohol, cocaine, sex addiction, and pills. Some are legitimized by law, taxation, or a doctor’s prescription; others will get you in trouble with the FDA. Tellingly, Reagan’s zeal for deregulation did not go so far as to buck Big Pharma!
Jennifer Garner plays the one doctor who ultimately empathizes with Ron. Perhaps she is the moral center of the story, inextricably enmeshed in the FDA-approved regimen, and increasingly aware that the outlaw patients, taking matters into their hands, are saving their own lives.
The insurgency of the infected, a community under siege from almost every direction during the Reagan era, is a struggle that escaped under the radar of memory for many in the organized left. It was a movement to protest our country’s neglect and contempt of its “least among us” citizens. Dallas Buyers Club not only recalls that history but gives that movement against aggressive injustice an uplifting morality tale that’s about as good as the art of cinema gets.
Photo: Focus Features