Dallas Buyers Club was one of my most anticipated films at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it was such a hot ticket even the studio couldn’t get me a pass for the premiere showing. However, I’m Fred Topel so I still got a ticket, using methods that would only be interesting to someone who knows festival ticketing procedures, and even then still not really. The point is, I did my job and got into the movie.
The buzz was about Matthew McConaughey losing 50 pounds to play Ron Woodroof in his last few years of life, suffering from AIDS in the 1980s. Doctors gave him one month to live, but trials of AZT were beginning and patients with AIDS were able to live longer and more comfortably, only it was only available to test subjects and the FDA were not approving other effective treatments for patients. So Woodroof started a members only club where for a monthly fee, he would share all the medications he obtained from a doctor in Mexico. That way, it’s not technically selling pharmaceuticals.
For a movie about dying of AIDS, Dallas Buyers Club is really fun. Woodroof is beating the system so the process of obtaining and sharing drugs while skirting around federal regulations is engaging. Woodroof’s pure entrepreneurship helped more people than the medical industry would, if the patients had followed their procedures.
Which brings up another fascinating point: the FDA and doctors were interested in running their drug trials to eventually find a cure for AIDS. That meant using placebos and running strict protocols to obtain data. Well, a cure for AIDS is a great big picture goal, but that’s not going to help anyone currently suffering from AIDS. Whoever has AIDS now just needs the drugs that are going to keep them alive. It doesn’t help them if they end up with the placebo and die. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or does individual survival trump everything else? It’s a fascinating question for an entertaining movie to ask.
There’s no end to the obstacles in Woodroof’s path. Answering one question only raises more questions with which he has to deal. The whole movie is a series of problem solving, which is tremendous for escalating drama. Whether it’s the IRS, the FDA, other buyers clubs, deals with foreign doctors or a minor logistical snafu, Woodroof keeps plugging along. The buyers club ultimately sustains itself which is a really profound thing when it takes on a life of its own.
The caper remains fun, even through all the emotional scenes. When it does get emotional, director Jean-Marc Vallee knows when to cut the scene and get out. Particularly, scenes with Woodroof’s transgender friend Rayon (Jared Leto) hit the poignant moment and don’t dwell on it. Woodroof remains a partier through his illness, so there’s always a party going on in the movie. It gets rousing because we’re on Woodroof’s side. “Yeah, fuck the FDA!” And it never plays the Patch Adams moment. Dallas Buyers Club is too real for that.
McConaughey and the film capture Woodroof’s spirit. He is vulgar and uses unfortunate words, but that was realistic in the ‘80s. Back then they still thought AIDS was a gay disease, but Woodroof was heterosexually promiscuous. He doesn’t know that women can be doctors either, but it’s a good thing they are because Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) is his only ally in the medical industry. It’s honest about the ignorance of society and individuals, but Ron was an ambitious guy. When he hears no, that doesn’t mean he stops. This is life we’re talking about. When the doctors say no, you don’t just give up and die. You just do it your own way.
The style of the film is fly on the wall, unobtrusively observing. It may technically be considered a “documentary” style with its handheld camera (though thankfully steady), but it doesn’t even draw attention to itself in that regard. This is really the best of both worlds, a realistic approach to an artistic adaptation of true events. The true sign of a great documentary is it made me want to Google more. Did Woodroof really use Dallas Cowboys player names on his fake prescriptions? I’m totally going to Google that. I want to know!