Dallas Buyers Club (2013, US)

Fourth Wall rating: 7.5/10.

"Let me give y'all a little news flash. There ain't nothin' out there can kill fuckin' Ron Woodruff in 30 days."

Jean-Marc Vallée directs a rollicking romp about society's response to AIDS, sexuality, American individualism and '80s moustaches.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée | Writers: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack Actors: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto & Denis O'Hare | Cinematographer: Yves Bélanger

One sentence description: 1980s -rodeo-wrong-‘un finds out he has AIDS and so, in time-honoured American fashion, finds a way to make money out of it.
One (long) sentence review: A superbly acted film based on actual events that deals with harrowing life changes and yet still ends up seeming like a feel-good film. 
Watch it if… You want tremendous acting and sacrifice for the art. 
Don’t watch it if… You take “based on actual events” too seriously. 
Best thing about the film… Jared Leto’s pre-op transgender character.

Making new friends
America in the 1980s was a very distinct place – money was fast, Madonna topped the charts, Beverly Hills Cop was in the theatres and the “West” was still in cold conflict with the Soviet Union. What had also happened, almost surreptitiously since the 1960s, was that the American ‘Sunbelt’ had ballooned to have a population equalling that of the coasts (NY, California, etc), helped in large part by the advent of cheap air conditioning. And so the conservative, religious interior of the US filled up with people from all over America. This is where we find Ron Woodruff – a homophobic and oversexed crook who acts as a bookmaker at the rodeo and makes a run for it every time his bets turn sour. We also meet Rayon (Leto), a naive pre-op transsexual. See the bottom of this article for a "before and after".

THE STORY (see below for review)

This is a film about a lot of little things, but it’s a twist on a very old American story: the Great American Hero (GAH®) in all his rugged individualism. So, following a fall outside a construction site, our plucky little homophobe is told he has AIDS and has about 30 days to live. Following a tidal wave of denial and anger, he finally starts to research AIDS and realises that it isn’t only limited to homosexual activity. And in time honoured fashion, like every GAH® in the pre-internet age, he goes to his local library and starts researching articles held on microfilm. 

At the same time, Ron finds a way to steal the standard antiretroviral drug being prescribed to HIV-positive patients, Azidothymidine, or AZT, from the hospital. He then discovers two things: first, AZT has harmful side effects and is being pushed by the Food & Drug Administration because of pressure by big pharmaceutical firms. Secondly, drugs like ddC that actually work but are held up in FDA testing (a tortuous process) are freely available in Mexico, less than 500 miles away. Oh, by the way, he's still using cocaine.

The real Ron Woodruff

Anyway, Ron sets up a buyers club in Dallas to bring in more effective drugs and distribute them to affected people locally. “Buyers clubs” sprang up all over the US in the 1980s for a simple reason: you couldn’t (and still can’t) sell unlicensed drugs. So entrepreneurial types set up “buyers clubs” where patrons paid membership fees and were then given the drugs for free, which bypassed the technical definition of “selling unlicensed drugs”.

Despite initially being a narrow minded and detestable character (he would certainly use more robust words), over time he becomes deeply attached to Rayon, provides hope to the hopeless and fights the establishment. This is no ‘Disney’ makeover, however – Ron’s interest in Rayon occurs initially because Rayon provides a ‘sales channel’ into the gay community. The rest of the film deals with the vindictiveness of the FDA and medical establishment, which goes after the DBC, and the deteriorating health of Rayon.


The writing and dialogue are quite good, although being based on the real Ron Woodruff’s journals, they had plenty to go on. The acting is what makes the film stand out, however - the transformations taken on by McConaughey and Leto are tremendous, and for their efforts they have an Oscar each. It would’ve been easier for Leto to play Rayon as campy and tragic, but he imbues the role with enough humour and style that we buy Rayon as a normal guy who just happens to believe he should be a woman. The scene between Rayon and her father is particularly touching. And within all that is a tour de force of acting. 

McConaughey’s performance is austere and has nothing of his ‘90s romcom glamour. He also has a whale of a time saying things like “that shit is purer than a preacher daughter's pussy”. Jennifer Garner & Denis O’Hare are given the thankless task of portraying the impotent and sometimes belligerent medical establishment, which they execute ably. I get the impression that Vallée (Director) let the actors work off each other and didn’t try to do much directing. The film is all the better for it.

It is interesting that Vallee et al chose one of the very few buyers clubs that wasn't run by a gay man, although this is clearly aimed at making the film more mainstream (and Oscar-bait). Despite this mainstream tendency, there is still an awful lot of heterosexual boning, prostitutes and cocaine, all of which serves to accentuate his subsequent 'change of heart'.

However. Like all good Oscar-bait Hollywood films, it doesn’t tell the whole story. AZT gets a very bad press in this film, but it is prescribed to patients even today, at a low dosage and as just one part of a cocktail of drugs. Also, the FDA was simply following a scientific method to rigorously test drugs before they hit the streets – however, if people are dying and you hold the answer in your hand, you have a duty to make that time count. The real life Ron Woodruff did, by living seven years longer than the Doctors gave him. AM

Let us digress, part 1
The term “rugged individualism” is in itself quite interesting and relevant, even today. It was coined by Herbert Hoover in a 1928 speech in which he refers to the idea that each individual should help him/her-self, and that the government does not need to involve itself in people's economic lives. In fact, Hoover feared that providing large-scale humanitarian efforts after the Great Depression would impair "the initiative and enterprise of the American people".

Let us digress, part 2 - transformations

Matthew McConaughey:

Jared Leto:

No comments: