Friday, February 26, 2021

"Dallas Buyers Club": review

If we think of AIDS as a pandemic of sorts, then I can say that I lived through that crisis when I was a kid.  I didn't gain awareness of AIDS as a widespread problem until I was in junior high, which is when everyone started jokingly accusing each other having AIDS.  The early 1980s were a bad time to be effeminate-looking or otherwise delicate-looking if you were a guy:  the term "faggot" was being thrown around with abandon back then, and everybody knew that AIDS was exclusively a "faggot" thing.  We now know better, and I'd like to think that the nation's collective homophobia has simmered down to some degree.  We now know that heterosexuals can be infected by HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.  We also understand AIDS well enough that modern treatment regimens can keep the condition from becoming a death sentence.  A lot has changed since the 80s.

2013's "Dallas Buyers Club" (sic:  no possessive apostrophe) takes us back to that unenlightened period of American history.  Directed by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée and starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, and Jared Leto, "Dallas Buyers Club" begins in roughly 1985, with electrician/rodeo fan Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) finding out he has HIV, which he probably contracted via unprotected sex with a needle-using drug addict.  Woodroof is told his T-cell count is scarily low, and he has thirty days to live; in denial, he rages at the doctors, but then he cools down and begins to read about AIDS and its treatment.  A new drug called AZT is being used in human trials.  Aggressively promoted by its manufacturer Avonex and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), AZT seems to be the only game in town.  The medical trials involve giving half the patients sugar-pill placebos, with the other half receiving the actual drug.  This doesn't satisfy Woodroof, who crosses the border into Mexico seeking alternatives.  There, he meets the disgraced Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne, unrecognizable) and discovers that AZT in large doses is essentially a poison that kills all the tissue it touches.  Vass puts Woodroof on a regimen of nutritional supplements, DDC, and Peptide T, a non-toxic protein.  Woodroof, incredibly, begins improving, and an idea is born:  why not ship these meds across the border and sell them to AIDS patients?

Woodroof encounters problems with the US government along the way to starting up his under-the-table business.  The FDA eventually makes unapproved drugs illegal, and as Woodroof's "Dallas Buyers Club" business flourishes, the IRS swoops in to audit him.  Woodroof acquires a business partner:  a trans woman named Rayon (Leto) who proves to have good money-management skills and a knack for finding clients in the gay/trans community.  Woodroof, who comes from a good-ol'-boy culture in which even the slightest sign of delicacy means being branded a "fuckin' faggot," is leery of Rayon at first, but he comes to trust her and even to view her as a friend.  Rayon's Achilles heel, however, is her cocaine addiction, which gets in the way of her own ongoing AIDS treatment.

I doubt I'm spoiling things when I say that, in the 1980s and early 90s, an AIDS diagnosis was indeed a death sentence, so there's only one way this story can end for Ron Woodroof.  But that's one of the major themes of "Dallas Buyers Club":  when faced with the sure prospect of death, what do you do?  As the character Red says in "The Shawshank Redemption," you get busy livin', or you get busy dyin'.  Ron Woodroof—sex addict, drinker, drug-user, and AIDS victim—chooses the former, belatedly imbuing his heretofore-wastrel life with real meaning.

Viewed through a cultural/political lens, "Dallas Buyers Club" has something for everyone of every political persuasion.  Woodroof's transformation from homophobic bigot to a close friend of Rayon the trans woman makes for a touching character arc that will appeal to the liberal end of the spectrum.  Meanwhile, Woodroof's unbridled capitalism and his hatred of the sluggish, ponderous, clumsy federal government—which can't approve good medication fast enough for thousands of dying patients—will appeal to the right side of the political/cultural aisle.

How much of the story is true, though?  I did a bit of research, and one of the first things I discovered was that Woodruff may not have been the raging homophobe he appeared to be during the first third of the film.  He may, in fact, have been bisexual himself, although testimonies conflict on this point.  As to whether AZT was and is the out-and-out poison that Woodroof believed it to be, well, this seems to be false.  AZT is still prescribed today as part of an AIDS treatment regimen, but doctors have since learned that AZT works best in very small doses, and alongside other meds.  Peptide T and DDC have also been shown to have dangerous side effects.  It's rarely wise to go against the experts when it comes to medication.  The movie also completely glosses over the fact that Woodroof was married several times (we only ever see him as a swinging single), and that he had a daughter.

So if "Dallas Buyers Club" can't be trusted to get the science right, and if it can't be trusted to get Woodroof's biography right, then how should we view the movie?  Is it a fable?  Is it some kind of morality play?  Is it that most pretentious of genres, the character study?  At a guess, it's probably the latter.  But consider:  the Dallas Buyers Club did exist; Ron Woodroof was a real person, and he was operating in rebellion against the US federal government.  To that extent, we've got a David-versus-Goliath situation, and maybe that's enough of a framework to hang a story on.  The characters of Rayon and sympathetic researcher Dr. Eve Saks (Garner) are both fictional, but if the movie's central message is about living and not merely surviving, then we should step back and let art do its thing, conveying a message straight to the heart.

The principal actors, especially McConaughey and Leto, do an incredible job.  Both men lost 47 and 30 pounds, respectively, for their roles as AIDS victims, and they both acted their hearts out.  (Both ended up winning Oscars for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, among other prizes.)  Leto, per his reputation, never once broke character during the 25-or-so days of filming.  (I've sung Leto's praises before; see my review of "Blade Runner 2049.")  McConaughey is a natural at conveying the desperation of a dying man who suddenly reorients his life because he wants to live.  Ron Woodroof, who had initially been given thirty days to live, died seven years after his AIDS diagnosis, having lived a full life, and having spared hundreds, perhaps thousands, of AIDS patients from early deaths.

Jean-Marc Vallée deserves credit for telling his story unsentimentally, in a style that Vallée himself describes as being close to that of a documentary.  Music during the movie is mostly diegetic (i.e., the music you hear is part of the universe in which the story is being told, so the characters are also hearing the music), but there are fleeting moments during which an actual soundtrack comes to the fore, and when it does, the melody is spare and tasteful.  The cinematography evokes a somewhat sepia-toned, broken down, 1980s-era Texas—a bit dusty, a bit forlorn, which is consistent with the rejection Woodroof suffers when his friends and coworkers discover he has AIDS and automatically assume he's a homosexual.  The movie manages to stir the emotions without reaching for overwrought treacle, and while we know what sad, inevitable arc Ron Woodroof's story must follow, I'd still say that the film ends on a life-affirming note.  Ron Woodroof didn't merely survive; he lived.

Watch "Dallas Buyers Club" with my enthusiastic blessing.  Know that it's very much a work of fiction that happens to incorporate some historical elements into its story, and that the historicity of the story isn't the fundamental point.  The point, Dear Reader, is 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


John Mac said...

Enjoyed this review of yet another movie that I somehow missed. Honestly don't even remember hearing about this one back then.

It's interesting to consider how little awareness there was back then about the treatment of such a deadly virus. One wonders how much we've truly learned since then?

Kevin Kim said...

I'd like to think we've learned something since the 80s, but we still have a long way to go.