“What? Hook me up to the morphine drip, let me fade out? Nah. Sorry, lady, but I prefer to die with my boots on.”
In the 20th century, scientists, governments, and hard working ‘ordinary’ people fought and conquered diseases that had ravaged the world, saving and improving lives. This feeling of safety continued until 1981, when a mystery illness started spreading, causing a number of highly rare conditions to become common in otherwise healthy people, destroying their immune systems. Governments, doctors, and civilians panicked, innocent groups of people were blamed, even by their own governments, and the disease was pigeonholed, alienating millions through fear, so much so that AIDS remains a hot-button topic to this day. There was no cure, researchers were testing drugs frantically, to ensure their safety, but these trials took too long, and governments showed little care, immediate response, and were ill equipped and advised. People needed help, and they didn’t have time to spare.
And so, out of desperation, people who had nothing to lose except a very short life expectancy, took their health into their own hands, banding together to utilise their limited resources to attempt to save themselves and the countless others that would come after them. This is where people, chronicled in films like the stunning How to Survive a Plague and more recently, Dallas Buyers Club, come in. Regular, everyday people that weren’t scientists but entrepreneurs, creative and great thinkers, who demanded better and quicker answers.
For the purpose of chronicling this movement, the focus falls on Ron Woodroof, a Texas man who, regardless of the hazyness of the details of his life (which raises questions of responsibility in telling a story, but I don’t particularly want to get into that, because of course I didn’t know him), was not involved prior to his diagnosis, and due to his professions, would have been around a lot of close-minded people. But after his life is turned upside-down, and he decides to not ‘go down without a fight’, despite only being given 30 days to live, the course of it completely changes. No longer does he spend his time partying, but instead utilises his intelligence and business mind to join others to fill the void that a government wasn’t.
One cannot talk about Dallas Buyers Club without mentioning the performances. Matthew McConaughey is almost unbearable to look at at first, his physical transformation is just staggering, who, along with Jared Leto, is literally fading into nothingness, all ribs and hollow cheeks. Both are incredible, embodying their characters perfectly, down to the smallest mannerism, really showing the audience their passion for telling the story. The film wouldn’t be the same without them, their performances are revelatory.
The entire film exudes simplicity and passion – there’s little artificial light, resulting in a very bleached, blown out look and some excellent cinematography. There’s much to marvel at in the way of technical elements, but one that really struck me was the use of sound, which constantly reminds the audience of Ron’s deteriorating condition, as buzzing and blurryness fills his consciousness and colour and focus wanes, instead of through more blatant, cliche means like looking inside his body etc.
Although the character of Ron is on screen for the entire duration of the film, we, unlike most biopics, aren’t given much back story, and outside the set up and immediate aftermath of his diagnosis, there isn’t much screentime where he is by himself, left alone giving massive interior monologues. Jean-Marc Vallée and writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack understand that Ron is all action and not much talk – he doesn’t throw a pity party for himself or reflect on his situation, rather, he sets out to change it in whatever way he can.
The more I think about the lack of focus on his personal history, the more evident it becomes that at the end of the day, Dallas Buyers Club isn’t just about Ron Woodroof, rather, it’s a tribute to all the people like him that stood up against a government that, while having precautions to follow, was dragging it’s feet in terms of proven, non-toxic treatments. It’s about people who had nothing to lose, but everything to give, smartly getting around regulations by establishing buyers clubs and taking their health into the own hands because their needs were not being met, and rallying together and using their talents to overcome their lack of resources to make discoveries in small amounts of time.
Overall, Dallas Buyers Club is an expertly written, directed and acted film that dramatises a story that was echoed in many instances in the 80s, with great displays of people power and generosity, highlighting the degree of uncertainty, desperation, stigma, and just how unknown AIDS was, something that continues to affect people from all walks of life.
Dallas Buyers Club received a limited release starting Thursday (February 2013).
MA (strong sex scenes, drug use, and coarse language), 117 mins.