A Look at Dallas Buyers Club

In which Matthew McConaughey is a man who contracts HIV in the 1980s.  “Dazed and Confused” took place in the 1970s, so this is clearly penance for messing around with those high school girls.

Pretty boy Matthew McConaughey this is not.  In a very transformative performance, McConaughey becomes a Southern party boy who has distaste for certain types of people.

Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill

No, not A Time to Kill, but close enough.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is about a man whose life is put on a clock and all odds are against him.  When he manages to get the best of those odds, at a time when treatment for his disease is still new and not fully recognized, he makes the most of his situation and decides to better not just himself, but others who are also afflicted.  Even more so when you consider that this man was convinced that these others were the only ones capable of contracting the HIV virus.

Dallas Buyers Club Poster

The film promptly begins during sex in a stable and we’re introduced to the man of the hour: rodeo cowboy and electrician Ron Woodroff, played by Matthew McConaughey.  Right from the start we see that Woodroff is somewhat of a stud, as he has his way with two women, drinks and punches a police officer in the face just to avoid being beaten up by other men.

One day at work, an illegal gets caught in some machinery and Ron attempts to shut down the machine, only to get zapped by a jolt of electricity.

Denis O'Hare in Dallas Buyers Club

At the hospital, we’re introduced to Dr. Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner, and Dr. Sevard, played by Denis O’Hare, who inform Ron that they ran some blood tests on him and it turns out he tested positive for HIV.  How he got HIV is something the film never explains.

Dallas Buyers Club- Ron Woodroff Learning He Has HIV

But HIV?  The virus that only gay people get?  No, not Ron Woodroff.  When just asked if he ever engaged in homosexual intercourse, Ron balks at the suggestion.  This is a good old Texas boy who loves women and loves drugs that are “purer than a preacher daughter’s pussy.”

Anyway, despite being told that he only has 30 days left to live, Ron goes about partying with his friend, T.J., played by Kevin Rankin, and two strippers.  Ron’s still in a party mood with his cocaine binges, but he’s unable to join when T.J. and the girls decide to take the party elsewhere.  Just not in the mood. A quick glances at the calendar and 30 circled in red indicate the news beginning to settle in.

Rather than just sit on this news and accept his fate, Ron heads to the library to do some research on HIV and AIDS.  He then heads back to the hospital to meet with Dr. Saks, who informs him that doctors are running trials on a drug called AZT, which is supposed to prolong the lives of those with AIDS.  It also helps that said drug has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.  Only half of the patients receive the drug, though.  The other half will receive a placebo.

While Ron may have some support from Dr. Saks, he doesn’t receive any from his friends when word spreads about Ron’s HIV.  In fact, they avoid him as if he’s poisonous to the touch.  And the brief support offered toward Ron from a support group is rebuffed when Woodroff reminds the men there that he’s not gay.

While at a stripper club, Ron spots one of the hospital workers he briefly saw while meeting with Dr. Saks.  Through arrangements, the orderly brings Ron AZT.  Over time, Ron pops the AZT pills like they’re Skittles, but he finds his condition worsening as a result.  Granted, this is also a result of his cocaine usage, but we see that the drug isn’t all that Dr. Saks made it out to be.

Dallas Buyers Club- Jared Leto as Rayon

We then meet Ron’s hospital roommate: an AIDS positive transgender woman named Rayon, played by Jared Leto.  Rayon is here for the AZT trial and plans to split it with a friend of his.  Ron, again, is antagonistic, but you get the sense early on that he can at least be calm enough to have a conversation with Rayon.

Ron, however, in no mood to wait, signs himself out of the hospital, preferring to die with his boots on.  The hospital orderly, however, is no longer able to provide Ron with AZT because it’s all been locked up.  He does provide Ron with the name of a doctor in Mexico who can help him.

When Ron heads home, he finds his trailer has been spray painted with the words “Faggot Blood” and a Notice to Vacate sign on his door.  Lashing out at whoever is within earshot, Ron blows open his door, scrambles for what cash he has hidden away and heads for the border.

In Mexico, Ron meets with Dr. Vaas, played by Griffin Dunne, a man who had his medical license revoked three years ago.  He tells Ron that his immune system is weak and he needs to build it back up.  He then further explains that AZT is poisonous to the system.

Three months after all of this, Ron finds he is still positive with HIV, but alive and his health has managed to improve.  However, he has chronic pneumonia and a host of other issues.  If it sucks, he’s got it.

There is hope, though, as Dr. Vaas prescribes him with DDC and the protein Peptide T, both of which are less toxic but unapproved in the United States.  Ron takes a moment and observes his surroundings: a not so great hospital with a small staff, and patients who may not be in the best of conditions, but are alive.  Ron notes that Dr. Vaas could make a fortune off of his medicine, given the amount of people who need it.  However, Dr. Vaas is comfortable right where he is.  And with no medical license to practice, he’s in no position to do anything.

Dallas Buyers Club- Woodroff with Barkley

But Ron Woodroff is.  The drugs aren’t illegal, just unapproved.  He takes as much as he can fit into his car and heads back for the States.  En route, Ron masquerades as a priest.  It fails and he’s arrested, but while in custody, he makes his case to FDA official Richard Barkley, played by Michael O’Neill.  Barkley informs that Woodroff that he’s only allowed to bring in 90 days worth of drugs across the border.  Woodroff states that it’s all for his use and his use alone.  Barkley lets him through on the condition that he does not sell it.

Back in the States, Dr. Saks notes to Dr. Sevard that the AZT test is not working, but Sevard insists that the test continue.

Dallas Buyers Club- Ron and Rayon try selling

Ron tries his luck selling the drugs, but he gets nowhere.  He has no ‘in’ with the gay community, so he seeks out Rayon, who eventually does join in for the price of 25 percent of the profits.

After getting an idea from some folks in New York City, Ron and Rayon set up a business that charges $400 per month for membership in exchange for the drugs.  The condition?  No AZT at all.

Welcome to the Dallas Buyers Club.

This film is about redemption.  It’s about a man who is handed a death sentence, but rather than be resigned to his fate and await his expiration, he takes matters into his own hands not just for himself, but others.  He’s given a second chance at life that, in effect, changes his outlook and makes him a beneficiary for the very people he once despised.  When backed into a corner or facing an obstacle, Ron will take any way he can to progress with helping others.

The biggest obstacle in this film is the Food and Drug Administration, who take all the stops to hamper Ron’s progress, even to the point of changing regulations to make any unapproved drug illegal.  The idea of the government being in bed with big business in an effort to screw over the little man isn’t an original idea by any means.  We’ve seen many a times in many mediums where the common man must rise up against his government oppressor.  It’s a bit refreshing here by having the challenger be a swearing, homophobic man who delights in drugs, sex with multiple partners and masquerades as a priest in order to smuggle drugs across the border.

Dallas Buyers Club- Ron Woodroff and Stash

Ron isn’t entirely a sympathetic character in that it’s difficult to relate to him, but he’s made very real through his efforts to help bring life-saving drugs to those who need them the most, even when it means screwing the rules.  This would still make him an antihero, but one with very twisted morals and values.  The government, by contrast, is seen as evil, unflinching and unwilling to compromise.  Better that those HIV-positive individuals continue to use AZT, even if it’s poisonous to their system.  Again, however, in real life context, this all fits.  During the 1980s, HIV and AIDS weren’t as well known as they are today.  Though Ron is stepping on the toes of big government and businesses, he’s doing so without entirely understanding the full scope of the situation himself.

Dallas Buyers Club- Dr. Eve Saks

The medicine industry is portrayed as cold, heartless and poisonous, save for Dr. Eve Saks, who seems to exist here as the one voice of reason in a sea of hardcore establishment bad-guy doctors.  She wants to change, while the doctors are less interested in helping patients and more worried about maintaining control.

At its core, I find “Dallas Buyers Club” to be about one man’s fight against the system, the very system that both gave him 30 days to live and inadvertently continued to poison his body through drugs he believed would help him. His motivation is desperation, but also hope when he realizes just how many people he can help.

This falls in line with the film’s tone, which leans more toward dark and serious than light hearted humor.  For example, on day 29 of his original 30 day run, Woodroff pulls out a gun, as if to contemplate shooting himself.  When he’s unable to go through with it, he instead lets out a hard wail.  There’s no sappy music accompanying the scene.  Just a man realizing his life is on a clock as he considers ending it by pulling the trigger.  Whenever Ron faints due to the disease, it happens out of nowhere, even to the point of inconveniencing his business.  The stark tone gives weight to the performances and makes their efforts feel real as opposed to contrived.

The editing is mixed to me.  We jump from one point to another with on-screen text telling us what day it is since Ron was given his 30 day death sentence.  It stood out to me, but it wasn’t really distracting.  Plus, aside from McConaughey saying something like “28 days later,” which would have been kind of funny, I can’t think of a way right now of how the director could have transitioned from one period to the next.  Plus, we get enough detail in between each jump that we’re not just dropped into a scene and lost about what’s happening.  There’s no cheesy narration or.  The film lets scenes play out and allows the actors to put on a full range of emotions, rather than the movie doing it for us.

Ron Woodroff Trying to Sell

That’s not to say this entire film is all super serious and no fun whatsoever.  For a movie dealing with a serious subject matter, there’s plenty of comedy.  Despite being told he has HIV, Ron goes on having sex and doing drugs.  When operating his Dallas Buyers Club, he has sex with the one female client who also has HIV just because, hey, she’s the best looking and probably one of the few women to actually stop by the club.  After Ron and Rayon begin working together, they have a run-in with T.J. at the supermarket.  When T.J. refuses to shake Rayon’s hand, Ron, in his own friendly way, forces him to.  And, of course, most of the scenes with Ron and Rayon add some needed humor to the film, with Rayon sweet talking Ron, much to Ron’s aggravation.

The two lead performances are both visceral, though McConaughey’s performance is a bit more layered than Leto’s, and the actors add depth to their characters.  Jared Leto was completely unrecognizable to me as Rayon, although much of that has to do with the fact that I can’t recall many films with Jared Leto that I’ve seen.  But he makes for a great partner with Ron and he’s not just here to spout off gay one-liners.

Dallas Buyers Club- Rayon in Gay Club

All right, he’s kind of here to spout off gay one-liners, but it’s clear from the start that this partnership is strictly that: partners.  There’s no romantic angle between the two, though, as mentioned, Ron does begin to respect Rayon despite losing to him in poker when they first met, not to mention representing the type of people Ron once despised.  Rayon makes a great foil for Ron, but he’s not above calling out Ron on his crap, as he once refused to pay Ron for the drugs from Mexico, believing someone as homophobic as him didn’t deserve it.  Rayon is better than Ron gives him credit for.  Leto manages to make Rayon funny, but crafty at the same time, refusing to join Ron unless he received one-fourth of the profits.  I also got a laugh out of him placing photos of men on Ron’s wall, which ends up distracting Ron when he’s trying to masturbate and accidentally glimpses at one of the men.

At the same time, Leto’s performance shines through Rayon’s more dramatic turns and twists.  He’s a self-destructing character who also knows that he’s on a clock.  Like Ron, he gives into temptation and goes for a quick drug fix, even after being scolded for not straightening up his act.  Rayon’s pain is masked through his discrete drug use and confident demeanor, but beneath that is a man who is trying to cling to life, even though the very attempts at clinging are what drain the life from him.

Dallas Buyers Club- Ron and Rayon sit on bench

Rayon is integral to the plot in that he provides the ‘in’ to the gay community, but he needs Ron just as much as Ron needs him.  Rayon could easily have probably won the drugs from Ron in a game of poker, but I think he finds Ron too much fun.  Also, while Ron has access through his long distance travels, we’re not told to what extent Rayon would go.  After all, on each travel overseas, it’s just Ron that travels, not Ron and Rayon.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee, as well as screenwriters Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack crafted a character whose fun to be around, but also an absolute wreck, and it shows in Leto’s performance.  Rayon’s life is crashing around him and he continues to use drugs that give him a quick fix, but could also possibly kill him.  We see his disillusionment with life and coping with pain, both of which not only harm him, but his relationship with Ron.

We aren’t told much about Rayon’s personal life and while there are attempts to include his past and family, for me, they come too late into the film to really add anything to an already well crafted character.

Ron Woodroff

And just as gripping in his performance is Matthew McConaughey, who gives one of my favorite performances by an actor this year.  Though a brute and jerk, McConaughey somehow managed to still make Ron likable.  He goes through life without a worry in the world, but once handed a death sentence, his view on life changes.  His actions are consistent with his character arc: the film opens on him having sex, but later on, hardcore sex and drugs just aren’t as addictive as they used to be.  It’s a gradual change, but accepted, as Ron doesn’t just change overnight.  Once he first learns about HIV, he pretty much says “Screw the doctors” and goes back to partying.  Slowly, but steady, the reality of the situation sinks in.

Dallas Buyers Club- Ron Woodroff Traveling

What I like about Ron’s efforts more than a lot of protagonists is that he’s very proactive in his efforts to combat HIV.  As opposed to just sitting around and going through the AZT trial, he does his homework and researches the growing AIDS epidemic.  He travels to Mexico, Japan, Israel, and Amsterdam, just to name a few, in an effort to find any and every drug he can get his hands on.  Each time an obstacle stands in Ron’s way, he tunnels under and around it to find an alternate route.  It shows the level of devotion he’s putting into the club and McConaughey shows great range in his performance.  We see Ron’s curiosity during research and growing rage not just when he’s stopped by the FDA, but how many of the country’s doctors don’t care that they’re poisoning patients with drugs that they’re told will help them.

What also makes Ron an effective character is how unflinching he is.  At first.  When one man comes with insufficient funding, Ron tells him and other waiting customers that if you don’t have the $400, you won’t get into the Dallas Buyers Club.  Period.  For each time the FDA raids his club, he’s ready to combat it through any legal means.  As opposed to simply going “Come on man” as his stash is slowly depleted it, Ron combats big medicine head on, even when it’s an uphill battle.  He even tells Dr. Sevard, who not only handed him the 30 day death sentence, but warned him to stop selling, that he planned to continue.  After all, Sevard told him that he only had 30 days to live, yet he’s alive and kicking, so clearly the problem isn’t with him: it’s with the hospitals that are meant to care for you.

Ron Woodroff at Customs

Given how hateful and spiteful Ron can be at times, in the traditional sense, he should be a character we don’t want to root for because he’s not all that likable, but his efforts are believable- his passion for helping others is proven when he begins pulling out the stops to keep his business afloat by any means.  More importantly, Ron knows that any victory he achieves is only temporary before the government finds a way, through legal and bullying tactics, to stop him.  Like Rayon, Ron is self-destructive, but as the club grows and legal battles continue, Ron gains more control over his life and stamps out his drug addiction.  Not too shabby when the audience’s first impression is based on you finding a way to penetrate two women in a stable.

McConaughey’s presence commands many of the scenes he’s in.  Like Christian Bale did for “The Fighter,” McConaughey lost a considerable amount of weight for the role and it shows through how emaciated he looks.  Again, like Bale, and even Leto- who also went through much for this role- it shows the level of commitment the actor will go through for the art of acting.  It’s a performance that really should be seen.

All that said, I’ll get a few complaints out of the way.

As mentioned, the government and drug companies are portrayed as evil.  Fine.  However, Richard Barkley seems to be the only person in the FDA with the desire to tail Ron Woodroff because he’s the primary agent that interacts with Ron.  I just figured, given how many loopholes Ron is jumping through to build up his club, that more government pressure would be put on him.  Yet it’s all given to Barkley, who we don’t learn much about and just dislike because he’s the evil FDA man trying to stop the antihero from helping out other people.  Whatever.  I just feel that his character wasn’t fully realized and that, outside of him, the FDA didn’t have much of a presence.

Dallas Buyers Club- Dr. Saks with other doctors

In the middle of all this big government talk is Jennifer Garner’s character, Dr. Eve Saks.  I personally have no problem with Garner’s performance, but the character itself is a bit of a waste.  As mentioned, she’s mostly here to be the conscience of the doctors that are fixated on using AZT, but she’s not as proactive and doesn’t really get that involved with Ron’s club.  Naturally.  After all, she’d be putting her job on the line for something that she, Ron, none of the people around her fully understands yet.  She’s here as the doctor who thinks outside the box and gives the finger to the establishment in a scene I assume is meant to elicit cheers and applause from the audience, but it didn’t get that reaction from me.

She’s also here just to give Ron a sort of romantic interest, but they’re not in the same scenes all that often and the supposed love story doesn’t go anywhere.  I do like the scenes they have together, as McConaughey and Garner do have very good chemistry, but I just wish we’d gotten to learn more about Dr. Saks earlier than we do.  It’d also have been better if she were more essential to the plot, because as is, she’s really just a bystander and occasional cheerleader on the sidelines.

There’s much to like about “Dallas Buyers Club,” but the strength of the film comes through its powerful performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, who make their characters and efforts feel real.  It’s about standing up to a powerful entity at a time when there was no clear answer or solution to the growing AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.  It’s about a man whose life is put on the clock and has a change of heart when he realizes the good he can do not just for himself, but those afflicted all around him.  When handed a death sentence, Ron Woodroff doesn’t just kick back and throw dollar bills at strippers.  He travels far and wide to find answers, take chances and put his life and the lives of others at risk, but for a worthy cause.  Again, while the premise of the people versus the government is nothing new, McConaughey’s performance of a lowdown Southern man who fights for his life while making a difference for those around him was great to watch and kept me entertained from start to finish.

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