Older fans of Matthew McConaughey’s spate of ’90s romantic comedies may be in for a shock when they walk into Dallas Buyers Club and see him playing Christian Bale’s character from The Machinist. He and costar Jared Leto (both radically transformed and up for Oscars this year) underwent severe weight loss for their roles in this based-on-a-true-story underdog drama that’s one part can’t-we-all-just-get-along and four parts sticking-it-to-The-MAN.
Short version for the unfamiliar: In 1985 a rodeo-lovin’, sexist, racist, all-around bigoted, drinkin’, druggin’, oversexed Texas electrician named Ron Woodroof was diagnosed HIV-positive and given thirty days to live. After a day’s worth of library research shatters his denial with the revelation that not all AIDS sufferers are homosexual, a stubborn Woodroof found the medical system of no help and instead pinned his survival hopes on back-channel methods — i.e., supplements and other substances (DDC, Peptide T, interferon) that were tested in other countries (with published results) but unapproved by America’s own FDA as of 1985. What began as a selfish fight to live turned into a profitable enterprise as Woodroof incorporated and created an AID-treatments-by-mail monthly subscription service.
Though profit was his initial motive in his life-extension quest, a growing sense of altruism would beget righteous indignation when the FDA declared that the one true AIDS treatment was AZT, still in testing stages at the time. The movie casts aspersions on the test results, its toxicity levels, and the pharmaceutical bigwig 1-percenters who stood to benefit if the world bought into it.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: I hadn’t seen a single trailer for this movie and was therefore pretty surprised to see Jennifer Garner as the only doctor who takes Woodroof’s crusade seriously. Steve Zahn is his local friendly police officer. ’80s guy Griffin Dunne is the unlicensed American expatriate who coordinates AIDS-treatment imports and exports from his Mexican hideaway. Dallas Roberts from season three of The Walking Dead once again plays a well-meaning pushover.
Nitpicking? I’m sure AZT supporters might have something to say about what Woodroof and the filmmakers think of it. I remember reading grumblings about it during my college days, so I’m no stranger to, or denier of, the possibility of hidden motives or buried studies.
In terms of content: the movie indulges in Woodroof’s excesses to make absolutely certain even the students at the back of the classroom understand that Woodroof wasn’t a saint. I really don’t require sex scenes in my viewing matter and usually let my eyes and attention wander away from the screen until things have moved on. We get it. He’s a wild party animal. Some finessed shorthand wouldn’t have hurt.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Woodroof’s experience with AZT and Big Pharma builds up to a David-vs.-Goliath conflict that the little guy and his grateful supporters have no hope of winning. The film’s bookends rightfully liken it to a rodeo daredevil trying to tame a bucking bronco — they’ll be lucky to survive the encounter, let alone keep their grip.
Also at work, of course, is Woodroof getting over his epithets and bonding with Rayon (Leto), a transgender AZT-trial volunteer who forgives their initial sparring, connects him with clientele, and becomes his business partner. Thus Woodroof has to learn to live with being around the very people he hates if he wants to make any money. Recoiling and snarling at them is bad for business. Over time he works through his feelings to the point where he can withstand a simple handshake from One Of Them.
At the same time, Woodroof’s redneck cohorts subscribe to the “AIDS = gay” school of thought that I distinctly recall being a real thing back then (wow, did that take me back to the old days) and…well, you can guess their responses. Hint: not accepting.
So did I like it or not? F-bombs and sexcapades aren’t my thing, but McConaughey and Leto are gaunt, naturalistic powerhouses in their respective roles. The use of an Evil Major Corporation as the villain transcended the cliché it’s become in recent years. And there’s something deeply appealing to me about the underlying theme of the dangers of compromised science. On those levels, Dallas Buyer’s Club spoke to me.
How about those end credits? They’re done in two minutes, though they still include a CG effects house — possibly for one scene involving a butterfly horde. After they conclude with the usual thanks, copyrights, and union labels, the screen fades briefly to black and then displays a single, final message.
“AIDS is not over. Access to treatment could save more lives.”