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Dallas Buyers Club: Haunting and Astounding.

November 16, 2013

I surprisingly saw a preview for Dallas Buyers Club before Thor: The Dark World last week. It seemed kind of incongruous to have a movie about a rodeo cowboy who contracts HIV in 1985 advertised before one about a superhero fighting some vaguely sci-fi/fantasy enemies with a doomsday device, but it really sold me. It has one of those trailers that makes you forget you’re sitting down to watch a Marvel movie because you’re left pondering the trailer rather than what you’re about to watch.

This is one of those films that comes along and forces you to remember how much the world has changed in roughly twenty or thirty years. I grew up after the fear for HIV/AIDs had started to drop, and with every passing year, while I know we are no closer to a cure, HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was. Of course, that’s a phrase that can very easily mask the fact that this is still a terrible disease and is still very likely going to be the major factor in your death if you contract it.

These two facts combine together, the way it plunges you into a time that seems almost barbaric in its treatment of the afflicted and that this is still a reality for many people, to make a really great film. One that you should probably watch simply for the subject matter let alone the astounding performances and direction.

The driving force of the film is the story of Ron Woodroof. Woodroof was a real person and when he died in 1992 a story was run about him in the Dallas Morning News explaining his battle with AIDs and the American government. Obviously, the film is dramatized, but it’s important to remember that many of these events did happen.

When the film opens, and it has quite an opening that I plan to discuss below, Ron Woodroof is something between a two-bit criminal and a blue collar guy. He’s almost comical in how he floats through life, but very quickly we get the sense that something is wrong. He suffers blackouts, headaches, and other problems that could be caused by his drug-laced lifestyle but seem to be something more.

Then along comes the diagnosis, his struggle against it, and his eventual acceptance. The scene where he realizes that it is entirely likely he has contracted HIV due to having unprotected sex on a regular basis is powerful. The instant reaction of his friends and acquaintances, the way they don’t want him to touch him, how afraid they become when he spits at them (the very fact that he spits at them to provoke a reaction), and of course, the strong doses of homophobia, all serve to paint a picture of the times.

It’s easy to forget how rapidly the concept of HIV and AIDs developed. In 1982 it was largely considered a problem solely for the homosexual community, and there are still lingering prejudices because of this early classification. By 1985, when the film starts, AIDs is becoming a more accepted term and HIV is being better understood as its cause. Still, at the time this was an almost guaranteed death sentence. One that Woodroof refused to accept.

He sought out new treatments, and motivated at first by a desire to make money, he opens what was known as a Buyers Club. These were private organizations that sprang up in the United States that would charge a membership fee and allow people to partake in drugs that were unapproved but not actively illegal. Through the buyers club, and the antagonism of the US Government and the FDA in particular, Ron grows as a person. It’s amazing to watch him transform from a narrow minded selfish man to someone who is simply doing all he can to survive and to help others.

This film is carried on the shoulders of Matthew McConaughey, and he gives an astounding performance. This is on top of the fact that he is barely recognizable in the role, having clearly shed large amounts of weight to give a convincing portrayal. The other actors also give fantastic performances, in particular Jared Leto as Woodroof’s transsexual business partner Rayon. Leto in particular is hard to forget. These performances are of course bolstered by a fantastic script and great direction.

Dallas Buyers Club will surprise you at times. It’s intense, and dark, but also has traces of humor and is built upon a zeal for life that’s hard to ignore. I actually will say that I find this to be a film that’s hard to talk about it because it’s difficult to compress everything that happens into a few hundred words. There’s so much to parse out of it and so much that you’re going to want to talk about, on top of the stark reality it presents. All in all, you should see this film because it’s fantastic.

Also, it is always amusing to remember that McConaughey is a good actor and very rewarding when he surpasses even your highest expectations like he does in this.

 

 

Below, I want to talk about one of the interesting themes that appears in the film.

 

 

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Identity is one of those concepts that’s hard to actually nail down. We all have a sense of ourselves but it is something generally nebulous; a sense of physicality combined with emotions, beliefs, and experiences. In some ways, it’s something that’s easier to see in others than it is yourself. You’ll see something and it just practically shouts a friend’s name at you but you don’t really ever feel that way about things in relation to yourself.

However, identity is something that you can feel being taken away from you or being suppressed either by yourself or society or some other force. It’s one of those rare ephemeral things that you don’t know how to describe it until you lose it. HIV is something that can consume who you are, and Dallas Buyers Club shows this in a really interesting way.

The film opens at a rodeo show, and we see people riding bulls and horses, and then someone is getting ready to head out. The ring is being set up for the next bull riding competitor, and we see the shadowy stall next to the bull’s and for a moment you think you’re looking at Woodroof just contemplating what he’s about to do. Then you realize that he’s having sex with a woman. Actually two women. They might be whores. They might just be groupies. What matters is that they want Ron Woodroof and he wants them. He is a virile and astounding man, or at least he feels that way.

Very rapidly though, we begin to see Woodroof’s virility falter. One night he and a friend are partying with two girls, and while he starts to get it on with one of the women, something happens. He just stops, as if he’s lost sight of exactly what it is he is doing. The woman, annoyed and bored, joins the other two in the next room while Ron is left watching, perplexed and confused. Losing sight not only of his own masculinity but the identity that he has wrapped up in it.

His relationship with Rayon has a rocky start simply because he can barely consider talking to a gay man. Ron’s always on guard trying to protect himself from a homosexual incursion until the disease forces him to accept the assistance. Eventually, the need for that support and that understanding causes him to develop something resembling domesticity with Rayon, and as a protector and healer Ron finds a new purpose, a new identity.

Still, though, it’s not his own. The buyers club is something he starts because he’s greedy but continues because he hates what corporations and the government are doing to people. It’s a very American notion to oppose government injustice and stand on one’s own two feet (to “die with his boots on,” as Ron puts it) and once more it creates this interesting window for Woodroof to try and reclaim his manliness.

One of the scenes that I think really drives home the fact that he is adrift in a culture and world he doesn’t understand anymore is one that is brief and in some ways played for laughs. A woman enters the buyers club, and Woodroof inquires as to what is wrong with her. Upon learning that she has full blown AIDs (like him), the next shot is everyone going about their day to the sounds of Ron and her having sex. This is then cut in with shots of the pair having wild sex in the bathroom while everyone goes about their day.

Everyone in that room understands that those two people, Ron and the woman, are that unbearably lonely. Certainly Ron is someone who has casual sex, but there is a passion and zeal that we don’t see in his other encounters that we see in that scene. After they part, they’ll both be alone again, unable to touch another person because of the death sentence they carry within them. That’s one of the realities of HIV no one likes to think about. The realization that you can’t have intimacy without danger.

For a man like Ron Woodroof, taking away his ability to have sex is devastating.

After all, when Rayon eventually passes in a devastating sequence, Ron’s grieving process is intense and powerful. He eventually seeks solace in a stripper/whore who dances for him and lets him touch her but when she goes to undo his pants, he pushes her away and begins to sob. What little identity he has was taken from him with Rayon’s passing. There is no intimacy for Ron at this point. There is no masculinity, no one to protect, and no identity to have.

As the film draws to a close, he discusses his life and everything that’s happened with Dr. Saks (Garner), one of the people who diagnosed him initially with HIV. He reflects that he wishes he could have his regular life back, because he now realizes that whatever he has now isn’t him. There is no iteration of him that was ever prepared for life with AIDs and no one to share his life with. All he has left is his fight with the US Government, and it’s a fight that he is doomed to lose.

The film comes to a conclusion shortly after his suit against the FDA, which is unsuccessful. It’s unsuccessful though because as the judge points out, sometimes the law doesn’t follow what seems to be common sense. In this case, the idea that the dying should have the freedom to pursue whatever means possible to cure themselves. Yet, there are many important legal reasons why this is the case and while the FDA officials Woodroof encountered might have been overzealous or even bullies, they weren’t wrong.

In the end, we do learn that Woodroof eventually gained the right to some of the medications that had kept him alive for years beyond his original 30 day death sentence. This time, in the darkness of the rodeo stall, he is preparing alone to mount a bull. He’s not the man we saw at the beginning of the film. He’s the man that he had to become. The Ron Woodroof who is living with AIDs and in many ways has overcome what it has done to him.

This is a really wonderful film and as I said there is a lot more to talk about. I’ve barely touched on so many other things that happen, including Jennifer Garner’s character and her struggles with the way medical research and law works. To get the whole story, just watch Dallas Buyers Club, you will not be disappointed.

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