Friday, December 13, 2013

Dallas Buyer's Club


Ron Woodroof


Ron Woodroof

DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB         B       
USA  (117 mi)  2013  d:  Jean-Marc Vallée      Official site

Apparently this story has been lying around for awhile, as in the mid 90’s Dennis Hopper was initially signed on to direct the film with Woody Harrelson as Ron Woodroof, but the money never came together.  While uncredited, which is a bit unfathomable, the origin of the movie comes from a lengthy  newspaper story called Buying Time written by Bill Minutaglio from the Dallas Life Magazine, published August 9, 1992, which can be read in its entirety on Robert Wilonsky’s Pop Culture Blog, For Matthew McConaughey, next up is true-life tale of 'The Dallas ....  The timing of the article was significant as Woodroof died just a few days after the article appeared in print.  Writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack are credited with writing the story, but they are actually adapting someone else’s story who should be compensated for their work.   Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), described by Minutaglio as a man “who cursed like four sailors,” is an enigmatic figure, as he’s your typical redneck Texas homophobe who hated “faggots” throughout his lifetime, as he was likely killed by a bisexual partner having sex with his girlfriend, as both were diagnosed as HIV+ in 1985 at a time when the expression hadn’t even been invented yet, as everyone was still labeled under the single AIDS category, as contracting the disease at that time meant sure death, as there were no medications offered.  Woodroof was a licensed electrical contractor and part-time rodeo rider known for his fearless nature while living a hard life of boozing, smoking, sniffing cocaine, and womanizing. The film leaves out a girlfriend, where she’s replaced by any number of attractive women for hire, where using condoms was exclusively something for kids.  When Woodroof ends up in the hospital for a work-related injury, his white blood cells are nearly non-existent, where doctors can’t even scientifically offer an explanation for why he’s still alive, informing him that he has 30 days remaining to live.  Angry and in denial about being told he has a “faggot’s” disease, he’s even more disappointed to discover there’s no treatment.

Showing amazing foresight and resiliency, he spends his time in Dallas libraries researching all the known information about the disease, discovering there is a government trial program administering AZT, which is the only known drug to have any effect, though there are significant side effects.  Also, this was still in the clinical trial stage, which takes months and years before results can be tabulated.  When you’ve been diagnosed as terminally ill, somehow the side effects aren’t your real worry, as it’s more about what’s killing you.  Losing 40 pounds for the role, McConaughey is an emaciated skeleton of a man whose life is slipping away from him.  Unable to legally buy AZT, he’s able to obtain some on the black market, as he has ready cash, but this pipeline closes when they lock it up in the hospitals.  He is, however, given a doctor’s name in Mexico that has the drug.  Driving the seven hours to Nuevo Laredo, he nearly collapses at the door.  What he does discover is an American doctor, Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who’s been stripped of his license, but continues to practice in Mexico where his own research concludes that AZT is too strong, that it kills all the healthy cells, but that a patient’s health improves with vitamin and protein supplements.  Incredibly, Woodroof was still alive 3 month’s later, and his blood count was improving once he stopped taking AZT, which nearly killed him.  Returning back to Dallas with a trunkful of medicine, he began selling it to patients desperate for an alternative, one of whom is closer to the AIDS community than he is, a transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto, in his first film in four years, who lost 30 pounds for the role), who becomes his business partner.  Together they rake in the money, but the FDA officials are on their heels, threatening to shut them down, which they eventually do, confiscating all their medicine.  When they re-open for business, they don’t sell drugs anymore, but buyer’s club subscriptions, where a monthly payment entitles the buyer to a month’s worth of pharmaceutical drugs.

While the film does show the Texas aversion to homosexuality, where discrimination is the rule, not the exception, Woodroof is initially skeptical to even be seen in the company of gays, but eventually he makes it into gay bars, where nearly all his customers hang out.  He and Rayon are a love/hate relationship in progress, continually getting on each other’s nerves, but they make a ton of dough while offering people the only known product that inhibits the progress of the HIV virus, so there are literally lines out their door for help.  While the film takes a shot at how the pharmaceutical business pays the FDA for what they want marketed and distributed, where AZT became the most expensive drug available, even with horrific side effects, the movie muddles any real developing connection in this area, as eventually it was determined the initial doses of AZT used were too high and the lowered doses used today have been much more successful.  In the early days of AIDS research, little was actually known, and what was known wasn’t released to the public fast enough.  Woodroof represents an anti-government strain at the time, especially since President Reagan and his Republican conservatives, largely supported by rabidly anti-gay religious fundamentalists, didn’t believe in government help, where by 1984 there were 2000 deaths and more than 4000 reported cases of AIDS in America, yet he remained indifferent to a national health crisis, only addressing the issue in 1987 near the end of his second term, forming a year-long commission to study the devastating effects of the disease, when by that time nearly 21,000 were dead and 36,000 Americans were diagnosed with AIDS.  The politics of the era are completely left out of the film, as are the medical statistics, where HIV currently infects 34 million people worldwide per year, where 10% of them are children.  

The use of Jennifer Garner is little more than a generic Hollywood treatment that demands a leading lady, and while she is terrific as a sympathetic hospital doctor who grows suspicious of the deadly effects of AZT, she also develops friendly relations with Woodroof, becoming a kind of romantic interest, especially since her normal looking physique stands out among streams of skeletal AIDS patients.  While the film can get ghoulish, with ghostly looking, overly emaciated clientele that resemble concentration camp survivors, the film interestingly adds the mysterious music of T-Rex, “Main Man” T. Rex - Main Man - YouTube (4:21) and “Life Is Strange” Marc Bolan and T. Rex - Life is Strange - YouTube (2:10), also an interesting joke where Rayon plasters their office with photos of lead singer Marc Bolan on the wall that Woodroof amusingly mistakes for Boy George.  After making the trip to Mexico some 300 times over the course of his lifetime, the life-saving network of smuggling underground experimental AIDS medications eventually comes to an end when the FDA tightens their restrictions, preventing medicines from other nations from entering the country, forcing AIDS patients to enter a bureaucratic maze of governmental dead ends and disillusionments.  The film is shot by cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who filmed Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways (2012), yet here his use of handheld cameras expresses the restless anxiety of the characters who are racing to find a way to combat this disease, having literally no time to waste.  Despite the film’s best efforts, it doesn’t capture the nation’s dreaded fear of the disease, where no one was prepared for this, when at the time people were even afraid to touch AIDS patients, much less hug them.  It was an era when hospital workers were instructed to wipe down seats with Clorox where AIDS patients sat, where there was so much homophobia and racism surrounding the disease, creating terrible times, when no one would talk openly about the disease, including the government.  The film eulogizes Woodroof as an AIDS activist who’s something of a saint, while also portraying him as an utterly contemptible human being and a lifelong bigot, yet his predicament raises the question of when is breaking the law actually for the public good, as his underground pressure did shed needed light onto the government’s inactions, as they’d been dragging their feet for nearly five years, eventually forcing them to act more responsibly (which the film never shows) by providing needed medications to all American HIV patients, which by now effectively suppresses the spread of the virus.

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