How to Make a Profit and Save Lives
By Adam Tawfik
Dallas Buyers Club has all of the elements for a Lifetime-esque treatment. The protagonist, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a homophobic white-trash drug and sex addict, who receives a shattering HIV diagnosis giving him 30 days to live. In order to fight the odds, he must stand up to the FDA and medical establishment by smuggling and using illegal drugs. He encounters a flamboyant transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto), who becomes his business partner, and an idealistic doctor (Jennifer Garner) who initially opposes his tactics.
Under the helm of director Jean-Marc Valleé and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas resists all temptations to be pat and preachy (save for a couple of scenes, but they’re minor enough to be forgiven). Dallas instead opts for a lucid and intellectual approach to AIDS, a disease that tends to get overly politicized and emotionalized in popular discourse and films due to its characterization as a gay disease. The film widens its scope so that it’s more than about rectifying homophobia, or about homosexuality and AIDS, or simply one man fighting against the government; it illuminates all of the above.
The filmmakers wisely let the facts and the characters speak for themselves. The first act consists of a subtle ripple effect of Ron coming to terms with his diagnosis. Although he acts like he’s invincible on the outside, little things show us he’s frightened. As he reads articles and realizes his drug use and unprotected sex gave him AIDS he is uncharacteristically unable to participate in the orgy in his trailer. There is an almost subliminal split-second image of him looking at the calendar and a flashing of red for 30 days representing his limited life span.
Dallas also shows how AIDS victims were ostracized. First, we see in a bar scene that Ron’s friends fear that he’s infectious. When he spits on them after a fight, they freak and cleanse themselves of the evil germs. Then his community shuns him by menacingly standing over his car and not letting him come to work and shutting off his trailer with an eviction notice. This is shown with surgical precision, using concise, short scenes.
Ron puts himself in danger by illegally taking AZT and almost dies, but we understand why he takes the risk, as doctors simply gave him 30 days to live, with no hope or medical options. They are impervious to the urgency the AIDS victims are feeling. Once Ron figures out there are more effective treatments that are illegal in the US and begins importing them from other countries, he sets up a distribution center, which he calls the Dallas Buyers Club, making them available to anyone with money by monthly subscription.
The rest of the film then centers on the legal tug-of-war between the FDA and the Dallas Buyers’ Club. There’s an excellent monologue delivered by a Supreme Court judge where he explains that the law isn’t logical or fair when ruling against Ron’s petition to continue the buyers’ club. This is still timely, considering the healthcare crisis today.
Even as Ron’s life totally changes, the film doesn’t magically transform him into a saint. He remains a character we admire more than like. He manages a true trajectory, beginning as a disgusting, rude, uncouth rube, slowly transforming his life. He is never a part of the gay scene and stays resentful of his forced association. But from the beginning his ethical streak is evident and grows as the film progresses. He approaches the Dallas Buyers Club as a business and he’s always a bit of a huckster, as is his partner, Rayon, whom he enlists to get more clients, particularly the flamboyantly gay ones, with whom Ron is very uncomfortable.
He never entirely gets over his homophobia. So his final scene with Rayon is touching, because the script shows that although he cares about Rayon (even though they constantly spar), he still is squeamish and is reluctant to hug him; this rings true and feels human. He manages to see each individual as a person regardless of their sexuality.
McConaughey once again proves that he’s more than a pretty boy and gets full in to his physically demanding role. There’s considerably little of his trademark roguish charm. He gives full conviction to his unsympathetic character, adding moments of humor while never losing sight of the gravity of his situation. He undergoes a subtle yet alarming physical transformation. In early scenes he is active and physical and as his disease progresses he becomes thin and fragile, all the while maintaining a fierce emotional spirit. This is probably his best dramatic role.
Jared Leto, returning to the big screen after a five year acting hiatus, is back in excellent form. He delivers a confident, flamboyantly gay character; he portrays the bitchy “queen” very well. Rayon is also the first character to stand up to Ron and force him to meaningfully consider his situation. We gradually learn it’s all a façade. Rayon has a lot of insecurities. He has been beaten down by life. As he’s in final stages of the disease we see he’s not dying with dignity. He attempts to numb his pain and sorrow with cocaine, thus speeding up his death sentence. It’s made more haunting by the last image we see of him, saying “I don’t want to die” and coughing up blood.
[Interesting trivia: some of the wonderful supporting Dallas cast were also featured in the marvelous 12 Years a Slave. J.D. Evermore shines as the hateful, stupid and despicable best friend who becomes the ringleader in ostracizing Ron. Deneen Tyler, with her cigarette-inflected baritone timbre, brings the right amount of sleaze, toughness, intelligence, and sensitivity to the role of the Buyer’s Club manager. ]
The sorely underrated Griffin Dunne is almost unrecognizable as a rogue hippie doctor practicing alternative medicine in Mexico, who becomes Ron’s first ally.
I was most pleasantly surprised by Jennifer Garner’s character and acting. The female character in male-oriented dramas usually lacks depth and is reduced to a love object. Here, Dr. Saks is a well-defined character, and has agency occupying her own storyline. She progresses from an idealistic, but very by-the-book, doctor to one who rebels against protocol for her patients’ best interests. Garner, who’s drop-dead gorgeous in a girly way, subtly plays down her looks. She nicely shows intelligence and inner strength, and makes the transformation of initially opposing Ron to allying with his cause believable.
The film tastefully and subtly portrays the victims’ progressive decline due to the disease and the makeup and drastic weight loss wasn’t gimmicky, allowing the characters to maintain center stage.
Yves Belanger’s cinematography has an intriguing balance of impressionistic beauty, whilst maintaining the seediness of the locations, especially in the rodeo scenes. Martin Pensa and Jean-Mark Valleé’s brisk and frenetic editing sets the stage for the film’s theme of urgently racing against the clock.