For those too young to remember the AIDS crisis of the 1980s clearly, or who were never a member of what was then called the “4-H Club” – homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs and Haitians, the demographics then at highest risk for HIV infection – it has become deceptively easy to move on from the terror of those times, which followed hard on the heels of the laissez-faire sexual scene of the post-Pill ‘60s and ‘70s. Today it’s common to hear about HIV-infected people who have gone on to lead long, relatively normal lives, and lately we even read in the news about former patients who are testing completely clear of the virus.
The down side of this mostly good news is that Americans are becoming dangerously complacent about AIDS, taking it for granted that the medical establishment is on the case and can fix us if we get careless. But it wasn’t always so. In fact, three decades ago, some fairly serious gay journalists were quite willing to entertain the hypothesis that the epidemic had been deliberately seeded by some government agency with an agenda of wiping out population subgroups deemed “undesirable.” Some people probably still believe that. The US Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and Big Pharma were all painfully slow in responding to the biggest public health crisis since the invention of the polio vaccine, and tens of thousands died possibly preventable deaths due to their inaction.
There’s a lot of human drama inherent in that story, but for some reason Hollywood has been loath to grapple with it. There are plenty of fine documentaries out there about the AIDS crisis, but precious little in the way of big-budget feature films in the two decades since Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. Considering that the latter was a critical and box-office hit, winning Oscars for Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen and a nomination for screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, one wonders why. Well, Dallas Buyers Club has finally come along to fill that gap, and does so most admirably. It was a long time in the making, the premise – based on a 1992 Dallas Morning News interview by Bill Minutaglio – running through the hands of a string of screenwriters and director candidates before finally settling in with Jean-Marc Vallée.
A long list of potential stars also took turns being associated with the project, and few would have predicted that Matthew McConaughey, whose silver screen success has largely rested on lightweight rom/coms, would have been the one to take the offer seriously enough to drop 38 pounds in order to look the part of a man at death’s door. People magazine is definitely not going to name him “Sexiest Man Alive” based on his gaunt, sore-covered visage in this movie, as it did in 2005. But he will henceforth be taken much more seriously as an actor, and likely walk off with a prestigious award or three.
Dallas Buyers Club is based on a real-life character named Ron Woodroof, an electrician and amateur rodeo rider who was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 1985 and had a toxic reaction to AZT, the only treatment approved by the FDA at the time. Unwilling to accept his 30-day death sentence, Woodroof organized an audacious campaign to smuggle vitamin and protein supplements and unapproved antiviral drugs into Dallas, at first from Mexico and then farther abroad. To work around some of the illegalities of his operation, he set up a buyers’ cooperative and sold memberships, instead of the drugs themselves: a business model that was replicated widely and successfully throughout the US at the time.
According to Minutaglio, the real Woodroof had no particular problem with gay people and declined to divulge how he contracted HIV. The movie version ups the dramatic ante by making its protagonist a brawling, whoring, foul-mouthed, alcoholic, coke-snorting homophobe who apparently caught the disease from a female prostitute. He may be the film’s antihero, but he’s by no means a likable or admirable guy. McConaughey, who has shown a knack for coming across as irritatingly cocky even in vehicles where he was playing the handsome young male romantic lead, turns out to be perfect casting for the role after all. His Ron Woodroof seems just too ornery and full of himself to die lying down.
Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t offer any miraculous moments with swelling strings on the soundtrack in which this scoundrelly character redeems himself, but redemption overtakes him nonetheless – haltingly, in small increments, interspersed with many a step backwards (including unprotected drunken interludes with hookers after he already knows that he’s infectious). The prime vector for that redemption the testy, begrudging friendship that he develops with Rayon/Raymond, a transgendered fellow patient who provides access to the gay subculture that Ron needs in order to build membership in the buyers’ club. Jared Leto turns in a stellar performance as Rayon, eschewing the big screen’s usual camp-and-vamp approach to transvestism in favor of a sense of tragic dignity unsurpassed since Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game in 1992.
Ron never stops flinging the six-letter F-word around Rayon even after they become business partners (though he sometimes replaces it with “idiot”). But as Rayon’s condition declines, Ron begins to get protective of someone other than himself for the first time, tapping into a nurturing instinct that he never knew he had. He even finds it in himself to make a romantic gesture or two and acknowledge a desire to have children. Audiences hoping for a big reveal that the cad’s aggressive homophobia is a mask for closeted homoerotic yearnings will be disappointed; but there are some tender moments between Ron and his doctor (Jennifer Garner) after she has become disillusioned with her hospital’s unwillingness to try anything but AZT with her AIDS patients.
Dallas Buyers Club is by no stretch of the imagination a feel-good movie, but it’s not the total downer that one might imagine, either. The narrative pace occasionally lags, and its nearly-two-hour running time would have profited from ten or 15 minutes’ worth of tightening. But the acting by Leto and McConaughey is so outstanding that an occasional glance at the wristwatch can be forgiven. And you’re guaranteed to walk out of the movie theater fuming at the medical cartel that was more interested in putting Ron Woodroof out of business than in saving lives among society’s outsiders.