Dallas Buyer’s Club is a biopic based on the life of Ron Woodroof, an AIDS sufferer whose stubborn will to live drives him to bypass the FDA and smuggle alternative, “unapproved” treatments from wherever he can get them. Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), turns a profit by creating a “buyer’s club” where HIV/AIDS patients can pay a monthly membership to access his wares. Woodroof, with reservations, accesses the HIV/AIDS community by entering a business deal with fellow sufferer, the savy transsexual drug-addict Rayon (played by Jared Leto).
When we meet Woodroof, he is an electrician with a penchant for gambling, the rodeo, prostitutes and cocaine. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, he responds with aggressive denial steeped in homophobia. When he lets the diagnosis slip to a friend, his fate is sealed; his home is trashed, he loses his job and his friends malign him as a “queer.” Despite this, the reality of the prognosis only sinks in when he recalls unprotected sex with an intravenous drug-using prostitute.
Woodroof begs to participate in an express FDA trial of the AIDS drug AZT. Losing that he drives to Mexico to access the drug, instead meeting an American doctor with other ideas. Woodroof’s mind is expanded by the plethora of treatments being used worldwide in different research trials, and becomes determined to try anything, and sell it on to the Buyer’s Club. As Woodroof himself said in a 1992 interview just before his death, “for many HIV-positive people, risking death is a moot point.”
Woodroof is painted as a “straight” straight guy, a thorough homophobe thrust into this historical moment without being part of the community with which it is mostly associated. But a lot of artistic licence has been taken to obscure the real facts of the tale, and to conflate selective truths.
First, Woodroof has an ex-wife and a daughter who are entirely missing from the piece. His ex-wife also maintains that her husband was openly bisexual, not the out and out straight guy he is portrayed to be. Those who knew him attest that he was a part of the gay community and had no trouble fitting in. This truth not only undermines much of the neat narrative trajectory the film surreptitiously pulls over our eyes, but also suggests a “blameless” victim – how could Woodroof have known? He wasn’t gay, he didn’t know he could get AIDS. Aside from this offensive twist of the truth, the gay community didn’t have any shortage of advocates from their own community, why does the film seek to portray a straight man as saviour in the narrative?
And what of AZT, the AIDS drug that the film’s narrative so strongly rails against? Constantly touted as “toxic” or “poison” by Woodroof. Well, I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to reveal, as the movie does in the closing title cards, that the drug, albeit in a tweaked form, saved millions of lives. The drug’s approval wasn’t fast-tracked for some conspiring Big Pharma (though money always helps), but because in the first trials of AZT, the placebo group had nineteen deaths, while the AZT group only had one death.
On top of this, the supporting characters of the film are supposedly composite. McConaughey’s two main co-stars, Rayon and Dr. Eve Saks (played by Jennifer Garner), are made-up narrative devices to fluff out the film. So that pretty much wipes away the truth of 99% of the film, leaving us with the one or two sentence summation of the narrative (a description of the Buyer’s Club, in Dallas) as the only real “truth” left.
The film’s deliberate disregard for the truth of the tale, supplanting it for a more conservative or acceptable ideology (the stray straight, rather than the confused bisexual), exposes the film as one not determined to disseminate a historic tale of human resilience and advocacy, but perhaps an Oscar fodder tale ripe for the transformative crap Academy Award voters lap up. Films like this fast sink into obscurity and one always remembers what it tricked us into elevating it above, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance in 12 Years a Slave, for instance. For a film with a $5 million budget (though this isn’t much in the machine of Hollywood), they couldn’t spare a small investment in the creation of a Wikipedia page for the real-life protagonist?
I don’t think anyone can diminish the strength of Leto’s and McConaughey’s performances, but, if you listen to their speeches, they themselves are caught up in the machine – duping an audience with little regard for the integrity of the character’s, real or imagined, that they portray. McConaughey’s pseudo sermon neglected to mention Woodroof’s name at all. Not to mention Leto’s award speech failure to thank or acknowledge the trans community at all, and many have viewed the rare role as a missed opportunity for a trans actress to break through to mainstream cinema.
Excuse my ranting, the film was perfectly adequate, the performances strong, but to me – the effect ringed hollow. The whole film seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity. Rather than exploiting some semblance of life as a career project, I would have preferred to see the real contradictions of Woodroof’s life and his epoch explored, albeit in the unseemly, messy way that life really is.