Imagine being sat down and told that you’ve just tested positive for HIV. Now imagine that you’ve only ever been told that this is a “gay disease” – an impossible horror reserved only for the darkest corner of “queerness.” Then picture this whopper: you’ve got six weeks to live. Six weeks. 42 days. 1000 hours…and that’s not accounting for time spent sleeping. The rest of your life needs to fit within the confines of a 1000-hour window. Welcome to AIDS in the 80s.
This true life horror story is a too commonly known in 2013, a time when we have a semi-solution to the problem – even though the living stigma attached to the HIV-positive is as lecherous and potent as ever – but in the live-free-die-young time of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), doctors couldn’t finger transmission causes, barely knew the symptoms, and failed to charter a road to recovery just as they failed to grasp the desperation of those afflicted.
It was a time of widespread panic, a near-modernization of the Black Plague that ripped apart communities and savaged its victims. If there was anything that HIV wasn’t, it was good. That is, except for Woodroof. His disease catalyzed him to become a man of action, a fighter with a rock-solid purpose, and most of all, a business juggernaut who built a small empire.
For a small town electrician with a seventh grade education, Woodroof essentially transformed himself into an amateur scientist and one of the leading experts on HIV/AIDS treatments. While hanging on for his life in Mexico after blasting his body with an unregulated trial version of AZT, Ron becomes a champion of the “cocktail” – a pill regiment that has become a regular staple of modern HIV treatment. Transfixed with saving his own life while making a few bucks, he soon starts smuggling boxes of the non-FDA approved medicine into the US for sale.
Never a man seeking a Nobel Prize, Woodroof was in drug business for himself and himself alone. He saw demand and a gross lack of supply and tactfully worked out a marketplace in the periphery of the drug administration’s reach. His actions couldn’t have been further from philanthropy and this is what makes the tale so entirely captivating. This is no hero’s story, this is the ballad of a charismatic anti-hero; a man profiteering off of his deadly disease, who just so happens to have made a positive mark in his community.
Amazingly, this is not the sob story that it so easily could have been. The absolute restraint on full display elevates Dallas Buyers Club from a powerful biopic into an elegant stunner. On many occasions, director Jean-Marc Vallée brings you to the brink of tears and quickly yanks away, allowing the melodramatic teat to go un-milked. In such, Dallas is the anti Nick Sparks. While this tragedy could have easily been swaddled in a waterfall of tears, Vallée and McConaughey harvest the comic aspects while maintaining a strong foothold in respectful execution. Like any true story, there is no black-and-white, just various shades of gray.
For the past two years, Matthew McConaughey has pushed against his former image – a shiftless Southerner, the heartthrob focal point of many a failed rom-com – and embraced his career like a man reborn. His work in Dallas Buyers Club is entirely stunning – unquestionably the greatest work of his career – the final stage of a prodigious transformation. Bubbling behind his eyes is a well of emotion, a characteristic that gives layers of depth to what he says, inferring that the true meaning of his homophobic, brash choice of words are always hidden behind a few layers of his callous former self. For as much of a strong-headed bastard as he is, Ron is as scared as a kid at a clown convention. But he’d rather die than ever say it.
Coming out of a semi-retirement, Jared Leto offers strong evidence that he should have never been allowed to step out of the spotlight. As Ron’s transvestite business partner, also stricken with HIV, Leto is gold and nearly threatens in upstage McConaughey in a number of scenes. Brimming with heart, Rayon offers a softer-edge to balance out Ron’s calculated apathy. Underneath the layers of overindulgent makeup, fire-red wig, and shabby drag garb, there is a real person – one who has suffered being the butt of countless gay jokes and has crawled nail-by-manicured-nail out of the disapproval of a conservative, waspy family. He isn’t some wacky transvestite; he is a human of hardship whose only reward for free expression is a case of full-blown AIDS. Ron may be the centerpiece of the film but Rayon is the timely beating heart.
As a piece of cultural import, Dallas Buyers Club works so well because it is just as poignant look at drug administration as corporate bully and the monumental failings of the U.S. health care system today as it was then. Just look at the similar origin story of Walter White in Breaking Bad – another tale of a man with a clinical death sentence forced to function outside the law to pay for treatment – to upend parallels between the 80s and now. We may have waged unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet the U.S. government continues to wage an invisible war on the sick with their defunct health care policies. Canadian Vallée wrangles the issue close and holds it up to the camera. “Is this acceptable America?” he asks. Of course not. And yet, around and around we go.
For the swing-for-the-fences success, major credit is due to the editing department under Vallée and Martin Pensa‘s guidance, making the most difficult calls of all – not overstaying. Debunking the belief that over-dramatization leads to more emotional impact, Vallée guides Dallas into near-perfect territory with the craft of someone who’s been doing this his whole life. Lingering long after the lights draw up, Dallas passes on an invaluable lesson: everything we have can be taken from us in an instant and, as life deteriorates around you, you can be footed with the bill. As an American living without health care, what can be more terrifying than that?
Dallas Buyers Club opens in Seattle tomorrow and can be found at the Cinemark Lincoln Square Cinemas.