You don’t have to be anti-science to question science in the hands of men who care more for profit. We are told by the corporate-owned press that anodynes found in nature are bad and those concocted in a lab are good — why? There’s no money in nature. In Dallas Buyers Club, a very unlikely radical and hero, ne’er-do-well Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), takes on the FDA and the medical establishment itself. It’s 1985, and Woodroof, a drug user, frequenter of prostitutes, and general scoundrel, is diagnosed with HIV. Woodroof, a reflexive homophobe, balks at this: Back then, HIV and AIDS were considered “the gay plague.” Woodroof is not, at first glance, a conventional hero — and indeed he continues to be crude and abrasive. Dying doesn’t really change him; it just makes him angrier, more passionate to suck any little juice out of life. The great thing about Dallas Buyers Club is that it proves someone can be kind of an asshole and also a great man.
At the hospital, Woodroof is given AZT, the only drug for HIV/AIDS therapy approved by the FDA. It doesn’t help him; it makes him sicker. So he looks outside the box, outside America, and hooks up with a doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dunne) who tells him about various, much less toxic treatments developed in France and other countries. They work, but alas lack the imprimatur of the FDA. Woodroof comes home with a trunk full of vitamins and protein-based serums, and sets up a “buyers club” wherein a $400 membership buys you all the drugs you want. Along the way, everyone tries to shut him down; he’s audited, his inventory is confiscated. But he’ll be damned if he’ll give in. The movie suggests that only an asshole like Woodroof — a single-minded good ol’ boy who drinks and whores around — has the Texas-sized stones to take on the big guns, all while holding off the biggest gun of all (initially given thirty days to live, Woodroof hung on seven more years, until 1992).
Dallas Buyers Club is only tangentially about AIDS; it’s really more for anyone who’s ever laughed bitterly at drug commercials that rattle off long lists of appalling side effects. At times, Americans seem to want to treat their bodies like a garden that they neglect to water and nourish; then, when the garden starts to fail, they dump kerosene all over it and hope that’ll fix it. In this movie, the medical establishment is hawking kerosene, because there’s money in kerosene. Woodroof isn’t a scientist, but he has some common sense and his will to live drives him into the library. Such patients are troublesome to doctors, who may want to be helpful (like the doctor played here by Jennifer Garner who has doubts about AZT) but whose hands are tied. The film says that this is what happens when health care becomes corporatized. Its reach becomes wider but clumsier and often mangles the Hippocratic Code. When all you’re allowed to use is a hammer, every disease becomes a nail.
Fair warning to epileptics and others sensitive to high-pitched noise: at several points in the movie, when Woodroof’s health falters, an intense whine dominates the soundtrack. Otherwise, the direction by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria) is unobtrusive and delicate, treating the sometimes clichéd narrative beats with a matter-of-factness that helps put them over. A scene of hostility between one of Woodroof’s homophobic former buddies and Woodroof’s transgender business partner Rayon (Jared Leto) is good for a cleansing laugh, and perhaps not coincidentally this is the first time I’ve been able to tolerate Jared Leto in a movie. Woodroof puts up with Rayon and her Marc Bolan obsession, and words like “faggot” slowly drop out of his conversation, if for no other reason than that gays are now his customer base. To its credit, the movie doesn’t really give Woodroof a big moment of reform; he’s in the buyers club primarily to live and to make a living. He doesn’t want to be a firebrand taking on the Man, but he has to be.
Those who enjoyed Matthew McConaughey in his earlier roles, before he walked in the wilderness of inane romantic comedies for about a decade, have been heartened by his resurgence in meatier roles in Magic Mike, Mud, Bernie, Killer Joe, and probably the upcoming Wolf of Wall Street. It’s been a textbook comeback — the former sexiest-man-alive prince returns, possibly with the makings of a king — and his performance here is likely the jewel in the crown. McConaughey understands men like Woodroof and spends zero time detaching himself from Woodroof’s less savory inclinations or beliefs. Woodroof can be gallant and even whitebread when it suits him, but he never stops being the guy with dirt under his fingernails who bets on the rodeo and likes a lap dance. It’s great character-actor work with the scale of a major star turn, the sort of transformation we saw with regularity in the ’70s but have, by and large, learned to live without. McConaughey’s recent arc to greatness parallels that of the man he’s playing: If someone formerly so disreputable, so unworthy of serious consideration, can do work on this level, what else is possible?