Review by Pamela Zoslov
The movie was inspired by a Dallas Life Magazine article about Woodroof, a Texas electrician, sometime rodeo bull rider and loose-living good-ol' boy who was diagnosed with the AIDS virus in the mid-'80s, and devoted the rest of his life to procuring and smuggling unapproved substances to prolong the lives and alleviate the suffering of AIDS patients. (You can read the original article here.) Shot in a quick 25 days with available light and hand-held cameras, the film has a gritty, realistic look that befits the fact-based story. The screenplay was based heavily on recorded interviews with Woodroof before he died in 1992.
The movie offers a glimpse of Woodroof's bacchanalian lifestyle as he indulges in booze, sex, drugs and their frequent companion, fighting. Like his buddies, he's a full-throated racist and homophobe. A news article about the death of Rock Hudson elicits from his group of buddies, “Rock Hudson was a cocksucker!”
When an accident on the job lands Woodroof in the hospital, a blood test reveals he is HIV-positive. The doctor tells him he has maybe 30 days to live. Woodroof is infuriated by the “faggot disease” diagnosis and claims the hospital “ mixed up my fuckin' blood sample.”
After retreating into a haze of booze and drugs, he begins researching the disease, which was poorly understood at the time. He tries treating himself with the then-experimental drug, AZT, bought on the black market, and it nearly kills him. A sympathetic doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), wants to help but can only suggest an AIDS support group. Woodroof retorts, “I'm dyin', and you're tellin' me to go get a hug from a bunch of faggots”?
Woodroof's diagnosis changes his life in other ways. His friends, including cop buddy Tucker (Steve Zahn), recoil from and taunt him, and he's evicted from his apartment (“FAGGOT BLOOD” is written in graffiti outside the place). Woodroof contemplates suicide, then travels to Mexico to pursue other treatment options. His research and experience have shown him that AZT is highly toxic.
In Mexico, he consults the mysterious Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), an American M.D. who set up a clinic south of the border after his license was yanked. Vass recommends a cocktail of vitamins, alternative antivirals and a non-toxic protein serum, all substances not approved for use in the U.S. Woodroof buys a huge supply of the drugs, which he smuggles across the border while dressed as a priest. It is the first of many risky border crossings Woodroof will make in his new career as an international smuggler.
Woodroof forges a partnership with Rayon (Leto), the HIV-positive transvestite he met in the hospital. Rayon gives Woodroof access to the gay, drag and transgender worlds, and the unlikely pair start a business selling unapproved drugs to AIDS sufferers. The business evolves into the Dallas Buyers Club, operating out of a motel room and working in a gray area of legality. The club, basically a distribution center for unapproved treatments, flies just under the FDA's radar. How it works is that buyers purchase memberships in the club, which gives them unlimited access to the medications. At the same time, Woodroof treats himself (“I am my own physician,” the real Woodroof once said), prolonging his own life.
The film dramatizes Woodroof's battles against the medical establishment, the FDA and the IRS, which started to crack down on the underground network. Though the battles are exaggerated for dramatic effect, you get a sense of the politics of the time as it affected the earliest AIDS sufferers, who were harmed by the lack of good treatment options and the lack of will to hasten research.
At the same time, the movie shows Woodroof's evolving consciousness about homosexuality, through his combative but ultimately sympathetic friendship with Rayon, born Raymond, a thrift shop-glam Marc Bolan devotee with sharp cheekbones and a needle drug addiction. Leto's performance is subtle and convincing. Gratefully, the film mostly avoids the sticky sentimentality that often accompanies portrayals of the transgendered (see TO WONG FOO..., THE BIRDCAGE). Rayon's sad history is gracefully suggested by a scene that has her meeting with her wealthy, long-estranged dad. Hair slicked back and dressed in a men's suit, she (he) looks like David Bowie in his Thin White Duke phase.
Directed by the talented Québécois Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., THE YOUNG VICTORIA), this is a movie that scarcely puts a foot wrong. McConaughey is effortlessly authentic, and the production as a whole is a memorable piece of work. 4 out of 4 stars.