“Dallas Buyers Club,” starring Matthew McConaughey, is a biopic about Ron Woodroof, a Dallas electrician, part time rodeo cowboy, and fulltime homophobic who is diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and given 30 days to live. After receiving this apparent life sentence, Ron takes his health care into his own hands to acquire AZT, then the only AIDS medication approved for human trials in the United States. Following a life threatening reaction to the toxic medication Ron seeks alternative treatments in Mexico, and, after responding to the unconventional medications, becomes a self-taught authority in international AIDS treatment options and an AIDS activist.
The film effectively captures the stigma and discrimination that were the fear fueled, social side-effect of AIDS in the early 1980’s. Because so little was initially understood, and as it was seen by many as a “Gay Disease” and for some emblematic of God’s punitive judgment against homosexuals, patients in the early days of the epidemic faced discrimination in treatment options, as well as where they could live and work. For many AIDS patients, isolation became one of the first and most painful conditions of the disease. Watching the hate and malice piled upon those who fell victim to the diagnosis, including Ron by his own “friends,” I was reminded of Ryan White and others who became the targets of merciless cruelty after diagnosed with the disease. Through depicting societal attempts to limit contact and opportunities in life for those impacted by AIDS, I could not help but think of leprosy and leper colonies of earlier unenlightened ages.
“Dallas Buyers Club” is a film about courage, transformation, and the power of purpose. When the viewer is first introduced to Ron, it is difficult to feel any sympathy for him. He is foul-mouthed, and abuses drugs, women, and anyone who is different, especially those with a different sexual orientation. Although he appears to be the leader of his ring in dishing out hateful venom, as with most bullies, his perceived strength is only an indication of his true weakness.
It is not until Ron becomes the bullied, the outsider, the different, the “one of them,” that he develops and demonstrates strength and courage. This transformation is initiated through the most unlikely of relationships, Ron and Rayon, a transgender woman and fellow AIDS patient, played masterfully by Jared Leto. Once Rayon would have been the target of verbal and physical abuse, but after Ron becomes one of “the others” and is rejected by his “friends,” Rayon offers acceptance that Ron has never known, even before his diagnosis.
While Ron is helped by the alternative treatments that he has to go to the greatest lengths to find and acquire, one can argue that the best medicine for him is the purpose he finds in helping other victims procure treatments that offer greater efficacy and less toxicity than those allowed at the time in the United States. Where before, Ron gained strength through bullying those who were weaker and different, now his battle against the heavy handed treatment of the FDA and pharmaceutical companies gives him strength and serves as a balm in his battle against the ravages of his disease.
“Dallas Buyers Club” offers several touch points with faith. Chief among these is the acting out of the “Sermon on the Mount.” Though Ron is not, nor ever becomes pure in heart, he does hunger and thirst for righteousness, and he is filled. Ron is salt who finds his taste in the service of others. He is a light that shines in advocating for those without a voice, and he refuses to hide even before judgmental friends. Ron discovers the fecklessness of storing earthly, physical treasures that can be stolen, or confiscated. In so letting go of the treasures of earth; wealth, envy, and hate, Ron Woodroof discovers the true treasure that is a healing heart.
Matthew McConaughey lost over 50 pounds and offers the most powerful performance of his career and is all but assured of at least an Academy Award nomination. Jared Leto, who lost over 30 pounds, will also assuredly receive a nomination for supporting actor. The film is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and also co-stars Jennifer Garner.
“Dallas Buyers Club” is rated R for strong language and adult content.