Monday, January 13, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club: How to Fight Back

After watching How to Survive a Plague, I had some idea about the struggles HIV-positive individuals experienced to obtain drugs that may or may not help them combat their disease. A common source of black market drugs was a "buyers club," where people imported drugs that hadn't been approved by the FDA yet but were being used in other countries with varying degrees of efficacy. Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club looks at one man's attempts to circumvent the system and save his own life.

Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a Dallas electrician who embraced a wild lifestyle that encompassed drugs, alcohol, and unprotected sex with multiple women. After a workplace accident landed him in the hospital, he was informed that he was HIV-positive, in the throes of full-blown AIDS, and had 30 days to get his affairs in order. This is a role of a lifetime for McConaughey who will shock you just by his emaciated appearance as the HIV-ravaged Woodroof. The character undergoes an incredible transformation - initially a raging homophobe who refuses to believe he has AIDS because that's only a disease for gay people, Woodroof educates himself, learns more about his illness, and proceeds to fight back. 

When Woodroof learns that enrollment in the hospital's AZT trial won't guarantee that he will receive AZT instead of a placebo, he bribes a janitor to sneak the drugs to him. When the AZT decimates his body due to its high toxicity, he seeks refuge in a Mexican hospital with an unlicensed doctor. There he learns about alternative unapproved therapies and his health rapidly improves. That's when he hits upon the scheme to return to Texas with these drugs and establish a buyers club for the other HIV-positive individuals in the area. To help him find customers, he teams up with an unlikely partner, a trans* woman named Rayon, who is played magnificently by Jared Leto. Leto completely inhabits this character and it is beautiful to see how the relationship between Rayon and Woodroof develops from a business arrangement to a genuine friendship.

Apart from McConaughey and Leto's star turns, Jennifer Garner offers up a warm and compassionate performance as Woodroof's doctor, Eve Saks. She is increasingly concerned with how the drug companies and FDA are handling HIV treatment research but has her hands tied by the system. The film also sets up how intelligent and resourceful HIV patients had to be, taking matters into their own hands when it came to treatment, but it doesn't shy away from revealing how that was a double-edged sword. Woodroof nearly died from self-medicating with unapproved drugs and his vehement opposition to AZT was never wholly justified.

Dallas Buyers Club is a poignant movie about the AIDS crisis in general and an engaging character study in particular. Featuring incredible performances and an elegant script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, this is a moving story about the power of an individual to effect tremendous change, both within himself and his community. 

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