Dallas Buyers Club is a gritty little Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of a movie.
A conservative, libertarian core inside a tasty chocolate wrapper of cultural liberalism, Dallas Buyers Club stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, an intelligent, complex man inside the shell of a course, homophobic Texas redneck, who discovers that he is HIV positive at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s. It is a confrontation with mortality. McConaughey lost 50 pounds for the film. He has the fragile, skeletal arms and legs of an old man. Jared Leto, who plays Rayon, a transsexual who Woodroof befriends over time, has the blotchy skin and unnatural pallor of a terminal AIDS patient.
Even though it’s a stark portrayal of two dying men, Dallas Buyers Club is also an upbeat story about an ultimately successful struggle against big government. If Chernobyl exposed the shortcomings of the Soviet government, then the AIDS epidemic hit the American government almost as hard. President Reagan never even acknowledged it existed until the final years of his administration. But even more damaging was the cumbersome, self-serving process the FDA used for approving new treatments.
Woodroof, who meets Rayon in the hospital at an experimental program to test the drug AZT experiences it firsthand. There is a sympathetic doctor, Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner, who doesn’t have very much to do other than portray a character stuck into the plot mainly to prove that “all doctors aren’t bad.” But the head of the program, Dr. Sevard, is an overbearing government bureaucrat from central casting. Even after he’s confronted with evidence that AZT has side effects that cause more harm than any good the drug might do, he’s unwilling to make any changes to the program that’s quite obviously killing as many people as it helps.
After Woodroof realizes his symptoms are getting worse, he travels to Mexico and undergoes treatment at a clinic run by a Dr. Vass, a renegade who has lost his license to practice medicine in the United States. He immediately takes Woodroof off the AZT — It kills every cell it touches, he explains —- and puts him on a regiment of ddC and the protein peptide T, which, even though acknowledge to be non-toxic, have not yet been approved by the FDA. Soon, Woodroof has made what seems to have been a miraculous recovery. He hasn’t been cured of HIV, of course, but he realizes that treating the symptoms of AIDS do more good than trying to attack a virus that can’t be killed anyway.
For Dallas Buyers Club, the struggle to ameliorate the effects of AIDS was won not through collective action, by ACT UP or any other radical group, but by the invisible hand of the market. Ron Woodroof does not found The Dallas Buyers Club, a subscription service that gives AIDS patients access to alternative treatments by paying a fee of 400 dollars a month — a setup that allows him to evade the FDA’s regulations since his customers are paying for the memberships and not the drugs — for the good of mankind. He did it to make money. Woodroof’s views have evolved since learning he was HIV positive, but, at heart, he’s still a wheeler and dealer, a small time Texas capitalist.
After Woodroof self-medicates with too strong a dose of Interferon, however, he has a mild heart attack and winds up back in the hospital, where Dr. Sevard discovers what he’s doing. Soon the heavy hand of government bureaucracy in the form of Richard Barkley, an FDA agent, comes down on the Dallas Buyers Club and ruins Woodroof’s business. As the increasingly cash strapped Woodroof becomes more and more sympathetic towards Rayon, whose health continues its downward spiral not so much because of the HIV virus but because she insists on maintaining her drug habit,which, in conjunction with the HIV virus, devastates her immune system, the FDA and the United States government continues to grow more and more repressive and out of touch.
Eventually the FDA changes its regulations to make any unapproved drug also illegal. ddC and the peptide T become almost impossible to get, and Woodroof winds up losing a lawsuit against the FDA. As the final credits roll, we learn that Woodroof died in 1992, 7 years after he was diagnosed with HIV, even though he was later allowed to acquire ddC and the peptide T for personal use.
The aesthetics of Dallas Buyers Club transcend the free-market ideology. Dallas Buyers Club shows us a United States we rarely see in film or on TV. Trailer parks, oil drilling sights with lax safety regulations — in one scene an undocumented Mexican worker writhes in pain as his coworkers look on unconcerned — stark, bargain basement strip malls, an uncaring health care system, the landscape of Dallas Buyers Club is a landscape of economic desperation, as relevant to the post 2008 days of the Great Recession as it is to the AIDS epidemic of the mid-1980s. Rayon is not only a transsexual, she’s every American living on the margins of society, rejected by her family and cast out of the mainstream as a freak. When Woodroof breaks down and hugs her, or when he goes berserk at Dr. Sevard’s clinic after he puts her on AZT and she dies, it’s more than the expression of one man’s rage.
It’s a dramatization of working-class solidarity, of honor among misfits.