Dallas Buyers Club begins in 1985 and follows Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) as his lifestyle choices come back to haunt him when he is diagnosed with HIV. Being the stereotypical Texan, Woodroof is, of course, homophobic. Even though he is apparently straight, once word of his affliction gets out, his friends shun him, his home is vandalized, and he is forced out of his job. Once he comes to terms with his condition, he tries to seek medical treatment. Unfortunately, he is turned away by doctors since there is no FDA approved treatment for HIV/AIDS. Being the resourceful person that he is, Woodroof heads south to Mexico and finds an outcast of the medical establishment to help him cope with his illness. Woodroof soon realizes that there is a demand for these unorthodox (unapproved) treatments and finds ways to smuggle them across the border to sell to others desiring treatment. The FDA soon becomes aware of Woodroof’s activities and repeatedly attempts to shut him down, but not without a fight.
This film has several things going for it. First, it shows, with great clarity, the hypocrisy of the FDA and pharmaceutical companies. The companies pay the government for testing and approval. Therefore, the company has a positive expectation from the outset. As depicted in this film, the clinical trials aren’t necessarily the hard science that one might expect. To confound the matter, the participants don’t always follow the rules of the trial. An added detriment of this system is that alternative treatments – those that lack FDA approval for whatever reason – are considered suspect and snuffed out whenever possible in order for the pharmaceutical companies to make as much money as possible, regardless of the effectiveness of either approach. While this film’s portrayal of the FDA is scathing, it doesn’t descend to the point of being a Michael Moore documentary. Instead, the film raises awareness for the viewer that the FDA might not necessarily have the best interests of the people as its top priority and shows how closely entwined the government and private businesses are intertwined.
It’s ironically appropriate that this film mostly takes place in Texas, an ultra-conservative, overflowing-with-testosterone state. While this film begins in 1985, a time when little was known about HIV/AIDS, the ignorance and prejudice of Woodroof’s peers is still astonishing. Even Woodroof, a known womanizer, is harassed for being gay by people he’s known for a long time once they discover he has HIV. This shows how HIV/AIDS was largely considered to be a disease of homosexuals, or even a punishment for such a lifestyle. This film implies that Woodroof contracted the disease from a prostitute who used intravenous drugs, but this information couldn’t break through bigotry. Woodroof, himself a homophobe, gradually comes to learn that homosexuals are people, too. In fact, a gay man, Rayon (Jared Leto), soon becomes one of his best friends. Just as Woodroof’s illusions of HIV/AIDS and homosexuals were shattered, so must our society’s.
The obvious comparison for this movie is Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, which depicted a member of the top echelon in society succumbing to HIV/AIDS. In contrast, Dallas Buyers Club shows a more gritty aspect of living with HIV/AIDS by depicting how those with lesser means have to cope and seek treatment. By doing so, this film goes where Philadelphia was afraid to go and shows a much more unsavory side of how HIV can be acquired through risky lifestyle choices and how people with little means must be evermore resourceful in how they find treatment.
The acting in Dallas Buyers Club is exceptionally well done. Matthew McConaughey lost a significant amount of body weight (30 pounds) for this role and Jared Leto waxed a significant amount of body hair. Clearly, both of these actors showed extreme dedication to the project. And in both cases, their performances were very well done, if not heartbreaking at times. This is a bold movie with several important messages for the viewer to ponder.