Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Inspired by a true story, Dallas Buyers Club stars Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner in the redemptive tale of the real Ron Woodroof; a Dallas electrician by trade and rodeo cowboy who in 1985 is diagnosed with AIDS. It’s July 1985, Rock Hudson is on newspaper covers for being in a Paris hospital with AIDS when we meet Ron (McConaughey) for the first time; the ladies-man is having sex in a rodeo stall and later chatting up his buddies while making derogatory remarks about gays and Arabs-alike; living up to the Texas redneck stereotype, Ron shows himself to be both a homophobe and bigot. Later, injured at his electrician’s job, Ron is taken to the ER at Dallas Mercy Hospital where a doctor confirms that his blood tested positive for HIV.

The diagnosis comes as no shock to the viewer for despite his larger than life foul-mouthed persona, Ron’s physical state is far from the picture of good health; gaunt with sunken cheekbones, sallow sweaty skin and dark circles under his eyes, you wonder how he’s even standing up straight. Angry and affronted by the doctor’s questions as to his sexuality and possible use of intravenous drugs, he belligerently insists on the error of the diagnosis for as he so eloquently states, he “ain’t no faggot.” The doctor confirms the diagnosis and tells him that his current condition and blood cell count suggests he probably has no more than 30 days left to live and so starts the countdown.

In denial over his condition, Ron continues partying with the ladies and snorting cocaine, though he eventually comes to accept the truth and desperate and afraid, he returns to the hospital angrily demanding help and is consulted by the younger of the two doctors who saw him in the ER, Eve (Garner). Eve is in charge of a human trial of the drug AZT for which she elicits Ron’s participation, an offer he turns down when he gets no guarantee of receiving actual treatment since he learns it’s a double-blind placebo controlled trial in which some patients we’ll get the real thing and others will just get a sugar pill.

With his redneck buddies turning against him when they hear of his diagnosis, he temporarily goes around the system by buying stolen AZT pills from a hospital orderly but that avenue disappears when the hospital begins locking up supplies, though the orderly ends up sharing information on a doctor in Mexico offering hope in the form of unapproved alternative drugs. All alone without friends or work – having been turned away at the job site – it’s day 28 in the countdown when Ron collapses and ends up at Dallas Mercy yet again. He wakes up feeling better thanks to a blood transfusion and meets his hospital roommate, the beautiful transsexual Rayon (Leto), who introduces herself and tells him he’s handsome in a Texasy white trash dumb kinda way. Rayon is just a blip in Ron's radar initially, a brief passing meeting filled with charm and a friendly connection that was undeniable.

Out of the hospital but without a home now, Ron is at the end of his rope physically, mentally and emotionally when desperation puts him on the road to Mexico where he meets a doctor that offers him a new lease on life. Three months after arriving in truly dire straits, the doctor has managed to build up Ron’s immune system; informing him that with an immune system already comprised by the disease, AZT was toxic and literally killing him. Awed by the doctor's results, Ron sees an easy way to make a buck, so filling up his car trunk with drugs, he dons a priests garb and smuggles the life-saving drugs into the U.S. in order to not only keep himself alive but also line his pockets. Unfortunately, sales and word of mouth are slow until he meets up with Rayon again, when he makes her an offer she can’t refuse (a 25% cut of the business); and that as they say is history because business takes off like a rocket as these unlikeliest of business partners and ultimately dare I say friends, try to stay one step ahead of the FDA, DEA and U.S. government as they do whatever it takes to grow their business, stay alive, and somehow end up becoming heroes and a source of hope to those in need.

This was a wonderfully honest and poignant movie about a flawed man who is put on a road to redemption by God, karma or fate. Woodroof was a far cry from the squeaky-clean heroic figures we typically see in these inspiring movies about someone stepping up to make a difference; he was a foul-mouthed homophobe who at the film’s onset judged a person’s goodness or worth strictly by their bedmates gender; a selfish man looking out for his own self-interest who seemingly stumbles into the role of activist and crusader by accident and I think truly changes to the benefit of not only himself but also thousands of others.

Watching the film and the depicted attitudes of the time it’s striking to see how far society has come in their attitudes towards this insidious disease and its victims. It was sad to see not only the sense of isolation suffered by so many, as those near and dear turned against them out of fear and ignorance, but the sheer desperation (and bravery) entailed in going up against something as big as the U.S. government and the audacity that that hopelessness engendered. Seeing Woodroof smuggling drugs through Mexico, bribing doctors in Japan or even going up against the FDA in court, you’re quick to remember that desperate times call for desperate measures and that everything is fair in love and war, especially when you’re fighting for your life.

The male leads in this movie truly shine. McConaughey's appearance is so far removed from the pretty boy looks of his romantic-comedies past that his physical transformation alone merits the award show attention he’s been getting; but it truly is his ease in conveying Ron’s anger and frustration with the government that is the most compelling component of his performance. The desperation conveyed in those hollowed eyes is palpable and his barely contained fury seems to seethe barely below the surface, like a powder keg ready to explode. McConaughey also adeptly offers a redeeming softness to Ron, as during the film's progression he makes an emotional connection with Rayon and truly comes to care for him. The sentiment between the two seems real, not forced or fake. Leto is amazing. There is a heartbreaking beauty and vulnerability to his performance that you don’t usually expect from a man. My heart broke for this man-woman-child that desperately needed someone to love him and nurture him for who he was. Honestly, while I was touched by McConaughey’s performance, I must say that it was Leto’s portrayal of Rayon that stayed with me beyond the film’s credits.

Dallas Buyers Club is a must see movie. It is not only a wonderful film with what I feel are performances of a lifetime from McConaughey and Leto, but it packs an emotional wallop in its message of hope, redemption and its reminder that we should never give up, never surrender.