American Frontier Spirit:
Dallas Buyers Club
“The Law doesn’t seem to make much common sense sometimes. If a person has been found to be terminally ill they ought to be able to take just about anything they feel will help.”
—Dallas Buyers Club
I came very close to not seeing director Jean- Marc Vallée’s Oscar-nominated Dallas Buyers Club. The idea of watching a film about a man dying of AIDS just didn’t strike me as something to do for entertainment; certainly not given my current mood, anyway. Nor did I want to look at it simply because the tools at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, if you don’t mind, deem it worthy enough to take Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. (And actually, it deserved in my opinion to beat 12 Years a Slave for Best Film.) I was also a bit concerned that Matthew McConaughey had only gotten the first award because he was fanatical enough to lose nearly 50 pounds for the role; and that Jared Leto had gotten his Oscar for the second because he plays, with complete conviction, a very endearing transgender man. Academy voters tend to love that kind of thing.
Well, it would have been my loss. What really swung it for me is that after last year’s Mud I’ll probably watch McConaughey do anything in the future—yes, even if he goes back to just being that guy who takes his shirt off all the time.
As to Dallas Buyers Club being about a man dying…could I have been more wrong? It’s about a man living; and even then more than that. It is just as much about the tenacity and sheer bloody-mindedness of a man who has that real American frontier can-do spirit and who uses his boundless energy, despite being terminally ill, to take on the might of Big Government and the Federal Drug Administration. I didn’t see that one coming.
Oddly enough, just one minute into it I was reminded of—believe it or not—Sean S. Cunningham’s 1980 Friday the 13th. Yeah, that’s right; the opening salvo in the slasher saga of indestructible Jason Voorhees, who never met a teenager he didn’t want to put a machete through.
Sex and Death
The very brief pre-title sequence shows Texan modern-day cowboy Ron Woodroot (McConaughey) behind the scenes at a rodeo, having the kind of sex he seems to like best—frenetic and meaningless. As we’ll soon see, he has already been infected by the HIV virus; and here, whilst he thrusts away merrily, he part-watches a bull throw and attack its rider (this is one guy who really can multi-task). The rodeo rider is laid out on the ground as the bull runs amok, and even though he probably isn’t dead the connection is subtly made right there: that at this point in time—1985– unprotected sex equals as much of a death sentence as it would for a promiscuous teen running into Camp Crystal Lake’s favourite son.
Ron Woodroot isn’t a likeable protagonist: he is one of those loud-mouthed, bigoted good ‘ol boys that you would hate to be stuck next to. When told that blood tests have shown that he has the virus that leads to full-blown AIDS, he goes into complete and outraged denial; after all, only cocksucking faggots like Rock Hudson get AIDS, in his opinion.
Unfortunately for Ron, his macho shit-kicking buddies are of the same opinion and he very shortly finds himself with no friends, no job and no home; but to give Ron his due, he may not be likeable, but by heaven he has a determination to prove wrong the doctors who have given him just thirty days to live.
He throws himself into learning more about his condition with the same gusto that he seems to have applied to every other aspect of his life; and he soon comes to the conclusion that the drugs he has been given in hospital are less than useless. In Mexico he finds a disbarred American doctor who prolongs his life far beyond the 30 day limit and gives Woodroot the inspiration to start taking these drugs—which are not illegal—back over the border for sale to what is a terrified (and at this time mainly homosexual ) community.
Along with the transgender Rayon (Leto) who he has struck up a business relationship with, they found the Dallas Buyers Club.
Ron and Rayon are in that great tradition of odd couples that we grow to love. They’re the latest in a long line of tradition that goes back to Laurel and Hardy, Felix and Oscar or Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. At one point Rayon is gazing longingly at a bargirl’s breasts, thinking how great they would look on him. “Stop staring at her tits,”, says Ron. “You’re starting to look normal.”
This kind of humour saves the film from being entirely grim. In fact, it manages to stay strangely upbeat. Another amusing scene shows Ron behind his desk, masturbating to images of naked women pinned to the office wall. Just as he climaxes he notices with outrage that the last one is of Raymon’s hero Marc Bolan. Well, it made me laugh.
Like all good stories of this kind, it is partially about redemption, as Ron puts his bigoted past behind him; then his entrepreneurial lust for money; and eventually is trying to keep the ‘Club’ running just because he believes in what he is doing. He also comes across as blisteringly angry as it is inferred (actually, Ron spells it out) that the major pharmaceutical companies stay cozy with the Federal Drugs Administration in the name of profits. And the combination of the two keep changing the rules in a bid to put him out of action. When Ron declares that he is intent on getting a restraining order against the Government and the FDA I felt like cheering, and I’m not even a member of any militia. Like anyone else, I do like a good David and Goliath story. In Court the Judge says:
“Regarding the FDA, the Court is highly disturbed by its bullying tactics and direct interference with the drug whose own agency has found to be non-toxic.
“The FDA was formed to protect the people (my italics), not to prevent them from getting help.
“The Law doesn’t seem to make much common sense sometimes. If a person has been found to be terminally ill, they ought to be able to take just about anything they feel will help; but that’s not the Law. I’m moved to compassion by your plight; but what is lacking here is legal authority to intervene.”
Although I’ve really only mentioned the two main actors, the fact is that even those in small roles are terrific. Jennifer Garner plays Dr. Eve Saks, who eventually comes to agree with Woodroot’s methods; and an almost unrecognizable Griffin Dunn (better known for his comedy roles) is great as Dr. Vass, left in ‘a shithole’ down Mexico-way.
And I just have to mention an actor whose name I don’t even know. He is only in it for all of two minutes. Far too little is seen of Rayon’s background but here it becomes obvious that he comes from money. “I suppose that I should be grateful that you put on men’s clothes” says his father. “God help me.”
“He is helping you,” replies Ray. “I have AIDS.”
With a minimum of dialogue and screen time the actor who plays his father manages to portray a compelling mixture of anger, sadness, shame and finally love for this son whom he just doesn’t understand.
Director Vallée and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack steadfastly refuse to give Dallas Buyers Club the sentimentality that someone else might have. And that is just one reason amongst many to see this film.
Yep, after my rant against the Oscars last week, they go and get it right.