Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

When I heard Matthew McConaughey won a Golden Globe I became very curious in the Dallas Buyers Club.  I wasn't familiar at all with the story and was surprised to see it was about the AIDS break out in Dallas.  Ron Woodroof found himself one of the HIV+ victims after an electrical accident on a job site lands him in the hospital  The electrician, part-time rodeo rider and good old Texas boy wasn't happy about being lumped in with a "bunch of faggots" in an AZT control test and sought his own cure, which led him into a seedy relationship with a former doctor down Mexico way.

McConaughey went through an amazing transformation to capture the gaunt frame of Woodroof, shedding close to 40 lbs. and I assume donning some make-up to look like someone who has gone through hell and back and lived to tell about.  The writers take a few liberties with Woodroof's story but for the most part stick close to the source.

Craig Borten had been trying to bring the story to the screen for 20 years and finally succeeded in an independent film made by Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee that creates a sense of earthiness to the events that transpired in the mid 80s.  All the scenes are shot close with a handheld cameras, often in tight spaces like the adjacent motel rooms that serve as the office and home for Woodroof and his transvestite "associate" Rayon, played by Jared Leto.   He also went through a major transformation and captures his role beautifully.  They traffic a variety of contraband AIDS "medicines," largely in the form of vitamins, minerals and protein supplements, which had not been granted FDA approval.

The film is as much an indictment of the early use of AZT as it as a poignant tale of how two persons struggle to come to terms with the rapidly debilitating disease.   I was really impressed by their performances and how the story unfolded.  The film never loses its gripping power, yet at the same time doesn't try to sentimentalize the issue as other AIDS movies have done.

Woodroof was an unrepentant homophobe, but in time came to accept Rayon (a fictionalized character) and the gay community, as these were his principal clients.  By setting up a buyers club, and charging $400/month for membership, they were able to skirt FDA regulations.  This was being done throughout the country at the time as AZT was prohibitively expensive and had horrible side effects.

Woodroof became a major advocate for the use of alternative medicines, which the FDA refused to endorse despite their proven effectiveness in other countries.  He established an elaborate network to supply his operations.  There is a brief mention of the Japanese-produced Interferon, but it is mostly vitamin and simpler protein supplements that helped AIDS victims stretch their lives beyond the months most doctors gave them.  Woodroof himself lived 7 years after being initially diagnosed as HIV positive at a very late stage of development.  He had been given 30 days.

I feel a bit like Roger Ebert with my recent movie reviews, but it's very refreshing to see movies from last year that deal with controversial subjects in an honest way.  This film certainly deserves a thumb's up.

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