The Dallas Buyers Club will take you back to a hard moment in history that most of us are familiar with. But it also takes us to something involved with it that we’re actually unfamiliar with.
Ron Woodruff is a 35 year-old electrician and part-time rodeo hustler living in Dallas. He’s not the easiest to get along with as he engages in frequent sex with rodeo girls, sniffs a lot of coke and shortchanges many of the men he arranges gambling deals with. He’s also as typically homophobic as most Texas men. However his physical condition has been acting up. The doctor tells him he has full-blown AIDS and just 30 days to live. He considers it nonsense: he’s not gay. It isn’t until he goes to the library and reads a Time magazine article about AIDS that he learns a promiscuous heterosexual male like him is high risk.
Having the condition is not easy. He’s ostracized by family and friends. He is given a drug at the Dallas Mercy Hospital by Dr. Saks called AZT. AZT is the only AIDS drug approved by the FDA for testing and is among the half with AIDS testing this drugs out while the other half receive a placebo. Ron tries to get AZT illegally by bribing a hospital worker but it only worsens his health to the point he’s hospitalized, sharing a room with a transgendered AIDS patient named Rayon whom he doesn’t get along with. Once the worker stops giving him the AZT, he decides to hit Mexico to get it. What he gets instead is a doctor whose medical license in the US is revoked who tells him of the harm AZT causes. The doctor gives him medicines that are unapproved in the US.
Noticing the improvements in him three months later, Ron decides to pursue in dealing these drugs in Dallas by importing them. They’re not illegal since they’re neither untested nor unapproved. It’s a challenging process as he has to disguise himself as a priest and pass customs by swearing they’re for personal use. Meanwhile Dr. Saks notices the problems with the patients on AZT but can’t discontinue administering the medicine as ordered by her supervisor Dr. Savard.
Once back in Dallas he starts business by dealing them over at the gay bars. He bumps into Rayon again. Even though he’s uncomfortable with her, he knows she can attract more people to his medicines. The two start their own bu8siness in a shared hotel room called the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ where AIDS patients can get these successful-but-unapproved medicines albeit at a $400 annual membership fee. The Club is very popular with AIDS patients lining up to get these medicines and it even helps Ron become friends with Rayon.
The club and its practices however can’t stay secret for long. Once Ron has a heart attack, Dr. Savard learns of his practices and is angry it’s interrupting the trial of AZT. One FDA agent confiscates one of the medicines and threatens to have Ron arrested. However he finds an ally in Dr. Saks who supports the club as she knows of other ‘buyers clubs’ in other US cities. The two become friends but still have to keep this business a secret as she is still commanded to conduct AZT testing.
Ron continues with the club and even goes to countries like Germany and Japan getting the latest in AIDS treatments, disguising himself as a businessman. Ron still faces problems with the club as the FDA agent gets the police to go to the club but receives just a fine. Soon it’s the law any drug unapproved by the FDA is now an ‘illegal’ drug. As the club is about to lose money, Rayon who herself has become a coke addict goes to her estranged father to beg for money. She gives Ron $10,000 passing it off as her chased-in life insurance.
Unfortunately while Ron is on a trip to Mexico to purchase more ‘illegal’ AIDS drugs, Rayon is taken to the hospital as her condition worsens. She is given AZT and soon dies. Ron is infuriated, feeling it’s the AZT that killed her. Then Dr. Saks, who is also upset with Rayon’s death, is also under fire by the hospital for participating in the Dallas Buyers Club and is asked to resign. She refuses as she’s rather be fired instead.
Rayon’s death changed Ron for the better. Soon the Dallas Buyers Club becomes less of an interest to make money and more to help AIDS patients stay alive, especially the gay people whom he has started to feel more of a compassion for after Rayon’s passing. He even goes to gay communities and AIDS outreach groups passing out pamphlets about the dangers of AZT. As one of his drugs is harder to acquire, Ron launches a lawsuit against the FDA. The judge shows compassion to Ron and his cause but his hands are tied. The film ends sending the message that even though Ron lost the trial, he is still a winner.
One thing this film will remind you of is of the harshness of the AIDS epidemic during the 1980’s and early-90’s. One line that stuck out to me was when a doctor said the epidemic will get worse before it gets controlled. I know because before the number of infected and dead started tapering down starting in 1996, it was hard and frustrating. I myself was actually very familiar with the AIDS epidemic back in the 90’s. I learned of its origins in the book And The Band Played On and of a lot of the difficulties in the US with the documentary Common Threads. It was after the latter when I made sure more than ever in my life to learn what I could to protect myself.
One thing I was not made aware of was these underground drug programs. There were these programs like the Dallas Buyers Club that smuggled these medicines approved in other countries but remained unapproved by the FDA into the United States. Ron Woodroof was not the only one doing this. In fact the script details at least two other US cities that had this drug program. I’m sure San Francisco and New York had their own programs.
This may be set during the early years of the AIDS epidemic but the film makes a strong detail that’s relevant today. They point out about drugs that can prolong lives greatly in the case of fatal diseases but remain unapproved by the FDA because of its lengthy testing time. A lot of lives are at stake during the waiting time. Even though some countries have approved some of those medicines already, they still remain unapproved in the US. That was a huge test to people like Ron Woodroof that considered this unacceptable and made the Dallas Buyers Club because of it. I’m sure it’s possible there are underground medicine facilities today in the US that are importing cancer drugs and other AIDS drugs still awaiting FDA approval.
Even though this film is about a smuggling operation exercises because of the FDA’s lack of timeliness, it’s also about the man Ron Woodroof. I don’t know the whole story of Ron but this film shows a unique story of a man who was a rodeo cowboy and hustler who slept with hookers and didn’t care about AIDS until it hit him. Soon he was able to take his hustling and dealing and using it for good. He had a homophobic attitude at first–common to most Texas men at the time– but it dropped once he had AIDS and met other gay men going through the same ordeal. Ron soon became a person for others but confided to Dr. Saks that he wants to live his life again and get back to rodeo life. In the end, he turned out to be that: a rebel cowboy who was a winner in the end. The ends ended up justifying the means too. Ron was originally expected to live a month after his diagnosis in July 1985. Instead he lived another seven years, dying in 1992.
Like any ‘based on a true story movie’ there’s always question of the truthfulness. No exception here. News stories say Ron actually wasn’t so homophobic at first in real life (and may possibly be bisexual), nor was he as violent or even a bull rider, nor did the characters of Rayon and Eve Saks exist. There are even claims that the Dallas Mercy Hospital wasn’t event hat cruel to AIDS patients. I won’t deny the lack of truthfulness in the story. It doesn’t however deter from the drama of the film. The story does have a lot of truth to it as Ron did attempt to challenge the FDA in court only to lose. I won’t deny the lack of truthfulness. In fact I would read a news story that said he had a daughter born in 1971 and there’s no appearance of the daughter at all in the film. I do feel it is a good film that gives a good portrayal of an epidemic and how government organizations like the FDA often fail the public. It was also a good depiction of the man Ron Woodroof if not an entirely truthful one.
The highlight of the film has to be the acting performances. Matthew McConaughey is practically unrecognizable with his cowboy get-up, loss of 40 lbs. and cowboy like Texas accent. His transformation into the role of Ron Woodroof was excellent. I couldn’t notice anything of McConaughey on screen. Also excellent was Jared Leto. He was quite the scene-stealer as Rayon and that was an excellent job of character acting. Jennifer Garner may not have as showy or transformative a role as Dr. Saks but she was also very good doing a performance not what one would expect to see from Garner on screen. Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack wrote an excellent script that keeps one intrigued but also gives the characters dimension. Jean-Marc Vallee also does an excellent job in direction. He’s had his experience directing film in Quebec and he does an excellent job with his first American production.
Dallas Buyers Club is an unlikely film that keeps one intrigued and entertained. One can question the truthfulness of the story but it succeeds in getting one to confront a moral dilemma. Especially on a situation that’s happening now.