Thursday, November 14, 2013

FILM REVIEW: Dallas Buyers Club

Thanks to being a member of Outfest, the organization that puts on the Los Angeles Lesbian and Gay Film Festival every summer, I was invited to attend a special preview screening of Dallas Buyers Club, a movie about what life was like at the heart of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, before there were any effective treatments at all. The film stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, Jared Leto as Rayon and Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eva Saks. 

The story follows Woodroff, a Texas good ol' boy who is partying hard in 1985 until he finds out that he has tested positive for HIV and is given 30 days to live. Woodroof does not take the news well and tries to continue his dissolute lifestyle but soon discovers that the stigma again AIDS in 1985 was universal, especially among the straight, white rodeo-attending construction workers that made up Woodroof's primary social circle at the time.

McConaughey's Woodroof is difficult to watch; he looks at least fifty pounds underweight, with a skeletal frame and sunken eyes that brings to mind the uncomfortable memories of the 1980s. However, the physical transformation is just the most notable but not the most significant aspect of his performance in Dallas Buyers Club. That would be the level of humanity and emotional resonance he brings to a little-known story that has a built-in level of pathos and tragedy hard to match. In addition to McConaughey's Woodroof, Leto's Rayon is another revelatory performance. Leto has undergone a similarly dramatic physical transformation, looking as gaunt and unhealthy as McConaughey, but he raises the stakes by also being transgender. Woodroof's reflexive homophobia and Rayon's sassiness combine to produce some of the best scenes in the film, and their (non-sexual) chemistry together is palpable.

Ultimately the story is about one man's fight against The Man. When Woodroof finds out that there is only one drug being actively considered by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for approval to fight AIDS called AZT and the hospital where Garner's Dr. Saks works is running clinical trials he tries to finagle his own personal supply. Woodroof is not one who lives his life obeying rules and he's certainly not going to face death obeying them. He finds out (by doing research in a public library with microfiche, before the Internet or Google!) that there are other drugs that are used in other countries to fight AIDS but the FDA is the primary obstacle to him (and other desperate Americans dying from AIDS) getting access to them. So, he goes off to Mexico and finds out that the drugs are cheaper and they alleviate his symptoms and save his life (or at he very least postpone his death). Always someone quick to recognize a get-rich scheme Woodroof realizes that he could bring back these Mexican drugs and sell them to desperate people with AIDS. The film depicts his struggle to interact with the gay men and intravenous drug users in Dallas in order to sell them medication which he honestly thinks will save their lives. This is where he connect with Rayon and the two go into business together, only to earn virulent opposition by the FDA and the local medical establishment. Woodroof is equally emphatic in his opposition to AZT, which he calls poison and actively encourages Rayon and others not to take it. Eventually they figure out a loophole to the FDA's drug importation regulations; they form a buyer's club where members pay a steep membership fee and membership earns you access to free drugs. When the FDA seizes his drugs at the Mexican border, Woodroof flies all over the world (Japan, Europe, Asia) to get access to the drugs that foreign governments are using to fight AIDS. Eventually the FDA relents to allow dying Americans to get access to drugs that are not formally approved through a compassionate use program. Woodroof still sues the FDA in federal court for preventing him access to unapproved drugs (like peptide T) that has been instrumental in prolonging his life. Dr. Saks eventually joins forces with Woodroof when she realizes that even though his methods are unorthodox, in his own way he is doing the same thing that she is doing: fighting AIDS and giving dying people the hope they need to survive.

The movie is based on a true story so one basically knows going in that it doesn't have a happy ending, but even so the story itself is very compelling, if sometimes difficult to watch, especially as a gay man. However, since there are so few depictions of stories with LGBT characters Dallas Buyers Club is still an important addition to the genre, and an effective illustration of the power of the human spirit in the face of tragedy.

Title: Dallas Buyers Club.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée.
Running Time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use.
Release Date: November 1, 2013.
Viewing Date: October 20, 2013.

Writing: B.
Acting: A.
Visuals: A.
Impact: B.

Overall Grade: A-/B+ (3.50/4.0).

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