Dallas Buyers Club (2013) tells an important true story of a public health fight and a man who needed a life-threatening disease to learn that life was worth living. It is a harrowing look at the nature of dying and, worse, the nature of those who profit in healing. The movie makes it both personal and universal all at once. It is raw and direct and inspiring. At least, it should have been.
There was something keeping me at arm’s length from Dallas Buyers Club,which has all the ingredients of a great movie but uses the wrong recipe. It follows the struggle for life of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a shit-kicking electrician in mid-’80s Dallas who spends his time hanging around rodeos and dive bars trolling for women and any kind of hustle he can shake up. He starts feeling poorly and ends up in the hospital. The doctors tell him he has HIV. “I ain’t no faggot,” he explains, insisting there’s been a mistake and they have the wrong blood samples. The doctors assure him they have it right and, more dourly, that Woodroof has 30 days to live. Through his ingenuity, resourcefulness and, in part, to his new ways of thinking, Woodroof will survive another seven years.
At first, things do not go too well. He is ostracized by his friends, who drop him because they now believe he’s gay, and there doesn’t appear to be anything he can take to get better or even slow the disease. The FDA is doing a trial run of AZT, which kills every cell it comes in contact with, including HIV, which slows its progress, but in the trial, some patients get the drug, others get a placebo, and there’s no way of knowing (or buying your way into) who will get what. Woodruff steals AZT from the garbage bins behind the hospital and improves somewhat, all the while doing heavy research on the disease that is killing him, possible treatments, and how to get them.
This leads him to set up the Dallas Buyers Club, a group of HIV patients who are allowed access to a cocktail of medicines from around the world that Woodroof smuggles into the USA. His clients don’t buy the drugs directly; they pay for a monthly membership (well below the price of AZT, which Woodroof eventually becomes convinced does more harm than good) and are treated to whatever they need. The group attracts the attention of the FDA, as all the drugs Woodroof provides aren’t approved, and while they claim they are looking out for public safety, Woodroof believes they are protecting the profits of AZT.
Through this process, Woodroof becomes a better version of himself (albeit a version that has a fatal disease). He is no longer the unambitious ne’er-do-well; he is now a driven entrepreneur and philanthropist. Even his deep-rooted prejudices are slowly eroded as he learns to trust Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), initially dismissed because of her gender, and he builds a meaningful relationship with Rayon (Jared Leto), a gay transvestite who Woodroof meets in the hospital. He first begrudgingly brings Rayon into his scheme but, because his capitalism trumps his homophobia, he recognizes Rayon’s ability to increase his membership in the gay community, which the HIV epidemic hit hardest. Gradually, Woodroof comes to empathize with Rayon and eventually grows to love him, turning his back on the blind assumptions of his past.
The unexpected outcome of Woodroof’s contracting HIV is his sudden willingness to let others in, to learn and grow and join the ranks of humanity. All this is shown directly and clearly and, in itself, is an inspiring and worthwhile tale. Buoyed by fine performances by McConaughey and Leto, the movie is more than adequate, but I couldn’t understand why it felt so slight, what was keeping me from being fully invested in it, fully engaged with it, fully moved. Most of this has to do with the direction by Jean-Marc Vallée, which is so nondescript and unimaginative it makes me feel that he was worried his subject was so important that any kind of style or grace would threaten to diminish it. There’s no sense of place, no sense of feeling, no sense of urgency, which is a mistake considering it tells the story of a man fighting for his life against a clock while engaging in illegal activities and staying a step ahead of the authorities. What can directing do to bring down good performances and a good script (the script here by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack is spare and informative and does a nice job of framing the debate between the need for care and the process of FDA approval)? Directing can drain those elements of life, or keep them from coming to life in the first place. Good direction can enliven even the poorest story; weak direction does the opposite. Dallas Buyers Club stays on the screen.
There’s also a surprising lack of grit. Despite his remarkable physical transformation (McConaughey lost 50 pounds for the role), Woodroof rarely seems like a sick man. Whereas Tom Hanks’ HIV patient deteriorated quickly (even in a scrubbed-clean Hollywood movie from 20 years ago), McConaughey and Leto just cough a little. The people they are helping wait in line like anxious hipsters waiting for the new iPhone. The movie wants to make the HIV epidemic real, but then it doesn’t show HIV.
More central to the story is the ideological battle between populist medicine and controlled (and profitable) FDA approval, but that goes only so far, and Woodroof’s time-honored journey from bigoted to big-hearted falls into some of the usual clichés, including Hollywood’s (even independent Hollywood’s) insistence that minority issues must be addressed through hetero-normative protagonists (as this is a true story—though how true is debatable as the real Woodroof was apparently not a homophobe and was actually an open bisexual, which is a problematic change the movie makes) and for other reasons, this malaise is much less damaging but is still present. That’s a shame becauseDallas Buyers Club has many elements that are exceedingly fine, but it left me wanting for the movie it could have been.