Friday, February 28, 2014

The Dallas Buyers Club

The Adventures of Lone Star and Tinkerbell
or
"Worst Case Scenario Being What?"

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), electrician and bad ol' Texas boy, does not look well. Maybe it's the drinking and drugs. Maybe it's the whoring around and the bad betting he does at the rodeo that gets him beat up a lot. Hey, that's Texas and that's Woodroof. But when an accident at his work-site finally knocks him out so that he can't crawl home and self-medicate, he gets a medical analysis. Somewhere along the way he's acquired the HIV virus and the prognosis is not good: he has 30 days to live and is advised "to get your affairs in order."

What order?

After storming out of the hospital, he starts his thirty days by bingeing himself blind, but he can't escape a glance at a calendar. Not being the sharpest tool in the woodshed, he doesn't know anything about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the five stages of grief, he goes from denial to anger and stops at bargaining—he starts to investigate what's happening to him. Libraries, medical journals, he pores over them to find out why a straight man could contract HIV, and finds that doctors and Big Pharma are starting to run tests on an experimental drug, AZT. With cash in hand, he goes about his business like he would looking for cocaine—go to the place that has it and offer money. But, the hospital is only running trials for the FDA, and only some of the subjects will be getting the real drug. The doctor (Jennifer Garner) offers him a support group.  "I'm dying, and you're telling me to get a hug from a bunch of faggots?" But, that's all she can offer. The support group offers some literature, but that's it.
Meanwhile, word of his disease gets around to his cronies, who have as much tolerance for the LGBT community as he does, but, by now being a quick study, he spits at them, scaring them off, and becomes determined to find a cure for his disease. That involves a trip to Mexico and a discredited doctor (played by an unrecognizable Griffin Dunne) who has a lot of information on AZT—not good—and has been getting good results with vitamins, minerals, and an experimental drug called Peptide T. They work for Woodroof—at least preventing debilitating seizures (foreshadowed in the film by the whine of tinnitus) and so, he smuggles years worth of the stuff over the Mexican border, attracting the attention of the FDA.

Jared Leto as Rayon and Matthew McCounaghey as Woodroof
But, Woodroof is nothing if not an entrepreneur, seeing an opportunity and a need in the HIV patients in his community.  He cannot sell the drugs he's brought over—that would be illegal—but taking a page from other parts of the country, he sells membership in a club, providing the recommended dosages of the meds at no additional cost. Being a straight redneck, it's a little difficult to form a trusting relationship in the gay community. For that, he forms a partnership with another HIV transgender patient, Rayon (Jared Leto), who provides him street-cred and an unlikely ally.
The character of Rayon did not actually exist, but is emblematic of many people Woodroof worked with in his efforts that started as a money-making venture and turned into a cause and a quest for better (and less toxic) medical solutions.
There's a lot of "sugar-pill" scenario-writing going on between the actual events and the way they're depicted. lt "plays" better for Woodroof to be the rebel fighting the evil system of Big Pharma and the snail's-pace approval process of the FDA. There's also a lot of drama on the early AZT testing, which was done at levels that were too high and too toxic for the human body to take, but this was done, not to harm, but because there was no previous testing of the much in-demand drug—and the experts did not know the effects ahead of the tests, hence the reason for tests in the first place. It is also consistent with the constant battling Woodroof had to endure to save his own life, his own system, and finally, the people who depended on his efforts.  If Woodroof is an unlikely hero, the filmmakers want to make it unambiguous—yeah, he's a jerk, but, ultimately he's doing the right thing.

Those issues of authenticity aside, the filmmakers, in front of and behind the camera, do a nimble job of keeping the detailed, jargoned and acronym-filled story clear and concise and human—they probably had to cut many, many detailed corners throughout the film's ten year development to get there. McConaughey, as he's been proving for a while now, gives a great performance, pulling no punches with his portrayal of Woodroof, while also losing a scary amount of weight, and contnuing to lose it as the movie, and the disease, progresses. He's only topped in the film by Leto, who runs far afield of caricature and makes Rayon an endearing, if fatally flawed, recognizable human being (even if the actor is not recognizable in it, at all), and their scenes together, starting with a prickly-bitchy card game in a hospital room, keep the film yin-yanging with a tension that starts out at odds, and ends up feeling more like family.



Ron Woodroof




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