A Gritty Look at AIDS and a Commentary on the Dignity of Every Life
Director: JEAN-MARC VALLÉE/2013
Authors note: In order to capture the language of the film and some of the stereotypes and stigmas associated with HIV/AIDS and the gay community in the 1980’s, certain offensive terms are used in this review. This does not in any way reflect the attitudes of ZekeFilm but is a way to expose aspects of the film as they are presented to the viewer so as to address these stereotypes and create a conversation for change. No offense is intended, and all such terms have been put in quotes to reflect their origin as having come from the film itself.
Twenty years ago, Tom Hanks delivered his first Oscar winning performance portraying Andrew Beckett, a homosexual lawyer who contracts AIDS and seeks to deal with it privately to avoid losing his job working in a conservative law firm. The film was in many ways the first mainstream look at the impact of AIDS on individuals, and under Jonathan Demme’s direction it was a way to allow for straight audiences to identify with the humanity of a homosexual man dealing with the disease that sought to confront the stigmatism that existed at that time.
In the 20 years since, AIDS has largely disappeared from the North American psyche as better medication has allowed for those with HIV/AIDS to be able to be able to resume a somewhat “normal” lifestyle in spite of the disease. The stigmatism of AIDS being a “gay” disease has largely disappeared as well as heterosexual celebrities, such as Magic Johnson continue to live with HIV and thrive today. We also understand that the disease is transmitted many times through intravenous drug use, or, as is the case throughout Africa, transferred in utero to babies who participated in zero risky behavior that led to AIDS, but who will grow up under its shadow. This is the world we find ourselves in now.
For many younger viewers who venture out to the theaters to see Dallas Buyers Club, there might be a slight disconnect between the ways we view AIDS now versus the way it was viewed then. Dallas Buyers Club takes place in 1985 and is based on actual events. Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, an electrician by trade who is also a regular in the Texas rodeo bull-riding scene. He is also quintessentially heterosexual. The opening frame of the film establishes this fact fully as Ron is engaged in a ménage-et-trois with two females, inside the bull-pen that is vacated, while the rodeo can be seen going on through the gate they are behind. Ron engages constantly in reckless sexual pursuits, smoking and drug use, heavy drinking, and gambling. His hard living is legendary to his friends.
Eventually, Ron passes out and finds himself in the hospital thinking that it is due to simply passing out from drinking and carousing. He is told, instead, that he has contracted AIDS. His immediate reaction is denial, declaring that he couldn’t have that “fag” disease. He is informed that he has 30 days to live. The rest of the film is Ron’s attempt to prove that diagnosis incorrect, because “nothing can kill Ron Woodruff in 30 days”.
Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career in Dallas Buyers Club. Having lost nearly 40 pounds for the role, McConaughey, is nearly unrecognizable. Not only has he shed the weight, but he has also managed to shed the buff, shirtless stereotype that filled so many of his other roles, and that frees him and allows him to simply disappear into the character.
While the stigmatism of this disease has faded over time in the West, McConaughey’s performance scrapes the scab off and reopens old wounds of the way we treated this disease and dealt with it, not only internally, but externally in our personal relationships. It also exposes how far we still have to go in acknowledging the dignity of every human being. Where Philadelphia sought to challenge the perception of AIDS, as well as homosexuals, and change it, Dallas Buyers Club seeks to hold the mirror up our eyes in order to expose us for the way we once dehumanized others as a culture, and how we still do. Ron Woodruff embodies the prevailing attitudes of the time, but his transformation, both physical and spiritual, in the film seeks to challenge us to a similar arc.
Despite receiving a diagnosis of having the disease, Ron continues to treat others who are afflicted with disdain. The internal attitude he has towards “queers” and “fags” continues to come out during chance encounters he has with homosexuals. In the meantime he continues to party hard seeking to prove it won’t kill him, and to prove to his friends that he is still a “true man”. This lifestyle choice proves to be too much for his stystem. Finding himself back in the hospital, under the care of Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), Ron Woodruff meets an HIV-infected transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto) who challenges Ron to simply treat her as a human. Jared Leto does a great job of embodying this character who, in many ways, is quite strong as she seeks to care for others around her and who can allow all of the gay slurs to roll off her back, but who is also quite vulnerable in her dependence on drugs and her desire to be accepted by her father who can’t view his son the way he dresses and carries himself.
The main thrust of the story comes from Woodruff, along with other HIV/AIDS patients being treated with the trial medicine AZT. When he learns that the AZT might be harming him, and many others, more than it is helping, he seeks out alternative medication in Mexico from a tip he receives from a hospital employee. When this new “natural” medication works through his system, Ron Woodruff seeks to bring it back across the border and sell it. Arousing suspicions from the FDA, and finding an unlikely partner in Rayon who is well connected to the homosexual population, who is disproportionally in need of it, Ron begins the Dallas Buyers Club. What he is actually selling is not the drugs themselves, but memberships in a cooperative. Membership entitles the members to all of the medication they need to treat their disease. This allows for them to avoid being charged with dealing drugs, or practicing medicine without a license, since the members of the club are medicating themselves with natural, “unapproved” yet legal medications outside of the oversight of a doctor.
The rest of the movie documents not only the political battle that took place against the drug AZT, but also the fate of the Dallas Buyers Club as they fight the FDA for the right to be able to help others deal with AIDS through these type of alternative medicines. More importantly, it shows us the journey of one individual who learns, through trying to survive his disease, the value of individuals, the destructive nature of his previous held views, and courageous spirit that struggles to survive in the face of insurmountable odds.
If Philadelphia opened the door to removing the stigma of AIDS, especially for the homosexual community, thenDallas Buyers Club knocks down the house exposing the way we once dealt with this disease, but more importantly how we continue to marginalize others. Ron Woodruff serves as an example of how to look past whatever keeps us from seeing others as human. In a powerful scene in the film Ron runs into an old friend of his who used to party with him but who is now avoiding Ron due to him having that “fag” disease and not wanting to get “queer blood” on him. Ron introduces his former friend to Rayon, but his old friend refuses to even acknowledge Rayon, much less shake her hand. Ron has to literally force his friend to shake the hand of Rayon. In doing this, Ron stands up to his former friend and for the first time defends the dignity of Rayon’s life, even while disagreeing with Rayon’s lifestyle.
It’s a poignant moment as we begin to see a turn in Ron’s life, as he begins to affirm the dignity of every life, hoping in some way that such an act will be reciprocated in his own life, now that he has been marginalized by those he used to hang around. And as he begins to embrace the value of others, the film challenges us to do the same.
Dallas Buyers Club features Oscar-caliber performances from both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, but its real strength is how it exposes how far we have to go in affirming the dignity of every life and removing the stigma of diseases such as HIV/AIDS. It also is able to challenge us with the notion that life doesn’t have to be over in the face of tragedy, and that we can continue to fight to live and in the process bring life and dignity to those around us.