Is it okay for someone to do the right thing even if it’s for the wrong reason? Or that someone is not exactly a good person? That’s a question that came up when I watched Dallas Buyers Club. It tells the true life tale of Ron Woodroof, a hard living cowboy who smuggled unapproved drugs into America for AIDS victims after he himself is diagnosed with the disease. This film reminds me of HBO’s show Enlightened. They both star an unlikeable, self-absorbed person who gets a fresh perspective after a breakdown (in Woodroof’s case, a physical breakdown). They are less selfish but not much else has changed. Both might be doing the right thing for selfish reasons but do they really care about the people they’re saving. In a strange way, both make the argument that only an asshole would be capable of doing something so bold and absolutely good.
Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a hard living cowboy. When he’s not working as an electrician, he’s blowing his paycheck either on cocaine or betting on bucking broncos. He downs any drugs he can get his hands on and has sex with any big boobied bimbo he can. Of course, something had to give. He blacks out and wakes up in a hospital. He is told he has contracted AIDS and has 28 days to live. Woodroof in a combination of pride and homophobia scoffs at the idea stating:
1) “I ain’t no flamin’ queer”
2) “There ain’t nuthin’ in the world that can kill fuckin’ Ron Woodroof in 30 Days”.
To be fair, it was the early 80s and there wasn’t much information about AIDS.
After some more partying and sex, the gravity of his situation sinks in. Not only is he blacking out but his friends are avoiding him. He’s lost his job and he is evicted from his home. But he is not one to take this lying down. He gives his friend the finger, drives away from his worksite and breaks into his trailer, causing as much commotion as possible. His search for a cure takes him to Mexico, where a disgraced doctor (Griffin Dunne) gives him medication unapproved by the FDA. Not only does it help him feel better, it allows him to live until 1992. The FDA would rather use ATZ despite the fact that it weakens white blood cells. For someone with an already weak immune system, this is a death sentence. Realizing this, and seeing an opportunity for a quick buck, Woodroof decides to transport the unapproved medicines across borders and sell it. To get around FDA laws, he sells memberships and gives away the medication to members only. With reluctant help from an AIDS afflicted transgendered woman, Rayon (Jared Leto), he sells big time. Thus the Dallas Buyers Club is born.
In a lesser film, Woodroof would have been made a heroic saint working for the unfortunate and the sick. Or a victim, enduring one hardship after another. Instead, McConaughey takes on the challenge of making him unsympathetic and then daring us to root for him. His Woodroof is self-destructive, cocky, violent, stubborn and homophobic. When he goes to a SAIDs clinic, he refuses the embrace of any gay person. He will cause the loudest commotion if anyone upsets him. The Club takes the same traits that make him an asshole to make him a hero. Only an asshole would have the guts to give the middle finger right to the face of authority while handing out unapproved medication. He creates a commotion for good by calling out the FDA for approving ATZ despite it killing white blood cells and making conditions worse for AIDS victims. His stubbornness allows him to continue looking for loopholes when FDA tries to stop him. The film shows him as smart. When he gets the illness, he actually does research. Though he is homophobic, he knows an opportunity for a quick buck. He knows that Rayon is a great means of contact with the LGBT community. In time, Rayon earns Ron’s begrudging respect and he starts to care for members of his club.
The film works on three levels. First, it is a portrayal of a homophobic man who puts profit above bigotry. Second, it looks at the LBGT community during the early years of the AIDS crisis. Third, it is a harsh critique of a medical system that puts the endgame above the greater good of their patients’ lives. All wrapped up in a wonderful biopic of a David taking on a bureaucratic Goliath.