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Dallas Buyers Club

November 8, 2013
Dallas Buyers Club

There’s no question that Dallas Buyer’s Club is built from the ground up as Oscar-bait. It’s a biopic about a hot-button topic that allows for both the lead and the significant supporting actor to undergo radical physical transformations. This is not to suggest it’s all cheap hooks; Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both turn in admirable performances that illuminate one of the weirder aspects of the AIDS epidemic that would otherwise be lost to our collective memory.

It may seem weird to younger viewers, but the days of the greatest public turmoil over the outbreak of HIV/AIDS also saw some of the least public support for actual solutions. We treated it like a biblical plague, shunning the tainted, and condemning them as unclean. And in an environment when the President of the United States cannot be bothered to speak the word “AIDS” in public, there is no cavalry coming to rescue the dying.

Instead it falls upon the dying to save themselves, organizing into public action groups like ACT UP — documented in last year’s How To Survive a Plague — to push for action from the medical establishment. And even when those wheels slowly began to turn they couldn’t always be trusted to choose the most promising directions of study over the most profitable; the FDA may approve them, but drugs are made by drug companies, and drug companies want the greatest return for the least investment.

That said, the FDA was not staffed by sadists; there are plenty of reasons to urge caution even in the face of what seem like promising therapeutic avenues. Thorotrast, laetrile, and thalidomide come to mind as, with many others behind them. Hidden poisons aside, it’s difficult to establish proper experimental controls on patients trying a dozen drugs at once, making it that much harder to determine which therapies are actually effective and which are so much snake oil. Of course, this must be balanced against the fact that real people are literally dying to get into these studies, and they can’t be treated as so many lab rats to be sacrificed for the greater good.

It was into this environment that “buyers clubs” emerged, and the one that Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) operated out of Dallas is as good an example to pick out as any, no less because Woodroof was the last person one might have expected to run an outreach program catering primarily to gay men. As homophobic a good-ole-boy as any, Woodroof contracted HIV himself, likely through his hard-partying lifestyle. After a near-fatal experience on toxic levels of self-administered AZT he sought help from a Mexican doctor who prescribed an alternative regimen of supplements unapproved by the FDA, and when he improved he began to seek out other alternative therapies, pooling resources with others in the AIDS community in Dallas to make them available to those who might want to try their own luck.

McConaughey plays Woodruff as charmingly as any of his characters, shedding weight and his all but trademarked hair to look the part. Leto provides a complex, compassionate counterweight in the cross-dressing Rayon, who helps Woodruff manage the club’s operations. And we also find Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare forming their own dyad as a pair of doctors running an AZT study, caught between scientific procedure and compassion for their patients.

And yes, Dallas Buyers Club does simplify its story a bit — the FDA was actually pretty lenient with buyers’ clubs overall, and did develop the “open-access clinical trial” for AZT — and it finds in Woodroof an outsize, eye-catching figure. But this is a biopic, not a documentary, and entertainment is as much the point as information. And I have to admit it’s great to watch McConaughey at work while also learning a little more about how the battles over AIDS drug therapies were fought.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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