Dallas Buyers Club takes place in 1985, what most historians consider the height of the AIDS hysteria, and centers around Ron Woodroof [Matthew McConaughey], a real life homophobic bigoted cowboy that will unknowingly become an advocate against big pharma in its pursuit for a cure for AIDS. As Woodruff says, “Let me give y’all a little news flash. There ain’t nothin’ out there can kill fuckin’ Ron Woodroof in 30 days.”
Woodroof is diagnosed HIV+ and soon realizes that AZT, the drug big pharma is pushing as a “cure,” is killing people. He heads to Mexico to “Dr.” Vass to acquire drugs that are not approved by the FDA and eventually meets transsexual Rayon [Jared Leto] and they start a members only buyers’ club to avoid the legality of selling illegal cocktails to prolong the lives of people with AIDS.
Dallas Buyers Club was released in the fall of 2013, two months prior to my coming out as transgender, but just in time to see Jared Leto win Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role as Rayon, causing a bit of a controversy in the trans community for another cisgender actor playing a transgender role.
It’s never quite clear if Rayon – a fictional character in the movie – is transgender, transsexual or just a cross-dresser, but those lines were blurred in the 80s and the only real glimpse into what Rayon represents is when she meets with her father and laments that she was never good enough for the family.
Rayon, looking at a family picture without her: “She looks great, I guess I didn’t make the cut.”
Father: “You made that choice yourself.”
Rayon: “It wasn’t a choice dad.”
Controversy aside, both Leto and McConaughey play their parts masterfully and given that it’s a period piece from the 80s, it can be easy to miss that all of the twenty dollar bills flying around in the film are current style and not 1985 style bills or the television in Dr. Saks home is an early 2000 model.
The realness of the film comes in the form of the forgotten panic, frustration, and desperation that arose out of the regulations passed by the FDA gate-keepers of the eighties to keep experimental drugs from the market while people were dying of the disease in record numbers. Current generations may not realize how epic this disease was [and still is] and may not believe how little the government did to help its citizens survive, thus forcing an underground market of risk takers.
The FDA clamp down on items as simple as Aloe Vera for being improperly labeled, buyers’ clubs sprung up all over the United States including New York and Florida; these clubs smuggled drugs in from all over the world to form an AIDs cocktail of over 60 experimental treatments through the club [including dextran sulfate and Procaine PVP], none of which were AZT.
The IRS, the FDA and local authorities continue to put pressure on Woodroof through audits and regulation and the club begins to stray into a Ponzi scheme, so more buyers are needed to support existing and future debt that will never turn to profit. Rayon goes to her father for a loan, but ends up selling her life insurance policy to fund the club when he turns her down.
“I sold my life insurance policy,” Rayon says, “I’m not going to need it anyway,” she continues when Ron questions where she got the money. This leads to one of only two real emotional moments in the film when Ron, a known homophobe, and Rayon shake hands and hugs.
A few scenes later, Rayon is put on a morphine drip and slowly passes away while Ron is in Mexico acquiring some new drugs. Rayon’s death scene is underwhelming and a slight disappointment but is soon made up by Ron’s reaction of storming into the hospital to call the doctors “murderers” for simply doing nothing to help Rayon.
Up until this point, the main dialogue pushing the film forward was the sarcastic and insulting banter between Ron and Rayon, none of which I as a person who is transgender felt insulted by, mostly because the film is what it is, a period piece about a homophobic redneck who is trying to save his own life using whomever he can to reach a means to an end. Unfortunately, the end will be just that, his end.
It’s also fair to note that Ron Woodroof was probably not as homophobic as the movie has portrayed him. In an interview in the Dallas News after the release of Dallas Buyers Club, Ron was described as “salty,” but not in any way a homophobic slur slinging cowboy. Bruce Monroe, who knew Ron said in the article, “Maybe the film needed a big transformation from homophobe to hero,” Monroe continued. “But it was more a case of Ron starting out as selfish and self-serving and growing into a larger role beyond his own survival.”
Losing 40 pounds for the role, Matthew McConaughey is captivating as he plays the hard-partying, quick talking grifter with ease as his signature southern laid back drawl adds to the characters’ likeability while never surrendering Ron’s persona as anything less than Woodroof’s urgency of now.
Be-that-as-it-may, Dallas Buyers Club is an accurate –if not embellished – look into the life of a local unknown hero that would have otherwise gone unnoticed in the pantheon of early AIDS activism; sadly, at the end of the day, Ron couldn’t activist himself out of his situation and in 1992 when Woodroof succumbs to his disease, he had lasted more than seven years past his expiration date and brought a new awareness to the disease that had been previously missing. At one point in the movie, Woodruff says, “You said I’d be dead in 30 days, well howdy fuckin doody cuz it’s a year later and guess who’s still here, I’m done.”