By Linc Leifeste | November 15, 2013
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writers: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Dallas Roberts, Steve Zahn, Kevin Rankin, Griffin Dunne, Michael O’Neill
“You may all go to hell, and I will go to Mexico.” – Ron Woodruff, Texas, 1985
Dallas Buyers Club opens with a haggard looking Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) engaged in vigorous sex with two women in a small enclosed stall set off from a rodeo arena. Amidst the thrusting and groaning, McConaughey’s attention drifts off to the arena through the slatted wall as he watches a bull rider get thrown and then trampled by a bull. As Woodruff winds down, the rider is laying motionless on the ground. The symbolism is only apparent later in the film, after it is revealed that Woodruff, himself a rodeo rider and a heterosexual male, has at some point in his very sexually active past contracted the HIV virus. Of course, neither Woodruff or the viewer know this until later when a clearly ailing Woodruff is diagnosed following a workplace accident. His response is first puzzlement and then denial as, in Texas circa 1985, HIV/AIDS was still seen very much as a gay man’s disease. And if there’s one thing that Woodruff is not, and does not want to considered as, it’s a homosexual.
As one of his associates (Woodruff is a man who fraternizes with other hard-living men but doesn’t appear to have close friendships) describes him, he’s a man with a “pussy addiction.” As well, he’s a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-partying, hard-gambling, hard-working, trailer-park living alpha Texan male and the straight, white, hardscrabble world he inhabits doesn’t have much use for nor tolerance of gay men that don’t fit into that (tunnel) vision of manhood. But that world comes crashing in with his HIV diagnosis, first because he’s told he only has 30 days to live, but secondly because he suddenly finds himself excommunicated by his circle of co-workers, neighbors and acquaintances for having a “gay disease.” The power of the film’s story lies in the aftermath of that diagnosis, as the charming, flawed, homophobic rascal Woodruff is forced to enter into a subculture that he had previously judged and dismissed, and as through sheer force of will he sidesteps the medical community, the FDA and the IRS to survive for years instead of weeks by seeking his own course of treatment.
Woodruff responds to his initial diagnosis as any red-blooded, heterosexual 1985 Texan male would have, by leaving the hospital in denial and going on a massive bender involving booze, cocaine and willing women. Soon enough, back down for the count and back in the hospital, he accepts his diagnosis but he is not one to go gently into that dark night. A model patient Ron Woodruff is not. He learns of an experimental drug trial for AZT, a medicine once considered a potential cancer-fighting drug before being ruled too dangerous, but being mere weeks from death he doesn’t have time to participate through proper channels. Instead he pays an orderly to steal him the drug and self-administers. But soon the orderly loses his access to the AZT and all he can give Woodruff is a doctor’s name in Mexico, probably the last place he would have thought to look for, if not salvation, redemption.
Dr. Vass, an American doctor who has lost his license to practice medicine in the States, runs a Mexican clinic and convinces Woodruff that AZT is poison and that a better treatment option lies in a combination of drugs and dietary supplements that are not FDA-approved. And sure enough, after a short while on this new treatment plan, Woodruff’s blood work is improved and he is feeling and looking better. It’s then that the light bulb goes off in his head and he realizes there’s a fortune to be made in getting these drugs to sick and dying AIDS patients across the border. Soon he is smuggling trunk-loads of pills across the border, sometimes disguised as a priest, and having run-ins with an FDA field agent (Michael O’Neill) who becomes intent on shutting him down.
Initially failing to convince many AIDS patients to buy unknown drugs from a complete stranger, Woodruff soon partners, initially unwillingly, with Rayon (Jared Leto), an HIV-positive trans woman he had earlier met during a short hospital stay. Rayon gives him inside access to the gay community, a mixed blessing for someone like Woodruff, allowing his business to take off. Soon, Rayon and Woodruff, to skirt laws and regulations on selling unapproved drugs, have started the Dallas Buyers Club, a medical “club” whereby members pay $400 dues and get unlimited access to the non-FDA-approved drugs.
Woodruff is constantly being hounded by the FDA and the IRS and continually having struggling to find providers for the drugs he needs to keep his business afloat, leading to a transformation from Dallas redneck into international businessman. But it is the relationship between Rayon and Woodruff and the transformation it brings about within Woodruff that is at the heart of the film, movingly captured in a scene where Woodruff violently convinces one of his old homophobic acquaintances to shake hands with Rayon during a grocery store encounter. Leto gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a complex character, alternately confidently in charge one moment and addictively drug-addled the next. If the film has a shortcoming, it’s that Leto’s character is the only limited window we’re given into the hellish world that was experienced by AIDS-afflicted gay men in 1980’s America.
McConaughey continues his recent run of brilliant performances, losing 30-plus pounds in a jaw-dropping physical transformation, while perfectly capturing a nuanced blend of some of the same qualities of his most memorable earlier characters from Magic Mike and Dazed and Confused. Somewhere amongst that combination of Texas-macho-swagger and laid-back-stoner-charm, McConaughey manages to fully inhabit and reveal nothing less than the soul of a man who rises above his limitations and flaws to achieve remarkable things. It’s a testament to the film’s director, Jean-Marc Vallée, and writers, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, that it never tries to fully explain Woodruff’s motivations, whether he’s more inspired by the money or humanitarian reasons. After all, he’s a human, so his motivations are constantly shifting. Ultimately, he’s in it for the purest reason of all, self-survival, and self-survival can make for some strange bedfellows. And strange bedfellows, it seems, can change the world, both the one within and the one without.