Dallas Buyers Club intimately explores the fears and stigmas faced by gay and straight men diagnosed with H.I.V. in 1980s Texas, a period and place where myths and judgements surrounded the disease and few proven treatment options were available. The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, is based off the true-life story of Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), the subject of a lengthy 1992 feature published by The Dallas Morning News.
The film begins with Woodroof, a homophobic and misogynistic womanizer and part-time drug-dealer, learning of his HIV-positive diagnosis after waking up in a Dallas hospital bed from an alcohol and drug-induced faint. He is dying, his doctors bluntly tell him, and he has less than 30 days to live. He begins his journey with H.I.V. alone– his closest “friends” abandon him, partly due to fear of catching the disease and partly due to what they believe must be his latent homosexual tendencies that led to him becoming infected.
Woodroof is committed to living as long as possible, and he manages to illegally obtain AZT, a drug still in clinical trials and so devastating to the immune system it nearly kills him. After explaining his reluctance to continue with AZT to his doctors, the compassionate Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who is also skeptical of the approved treatments for H.I.V., becomes an ally when she learns of his business of smuggling into Texas combinations of drugs and supplements helping infected patients stabilize their T-cell counts. The Dallas Buyers Club begins treating thousands of its “members” with aloe, proteins and vitamins, among other drugs not approved by the FDA but available in Mexico, Japan and Israel.
One of the best performances in the film belongs to Jared Leto; he plays the part of Rayon, a transgender woman suffering from AIDS who partners with Woodroof to bring smuggled drugs to local gay men. Rayon is estranged from her parents, and she dies while receiving a morphine drip in the ER with no family present.
Louis Weisberg, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Gazette, a progressive newsmagazine that caters to the LGBT community of Wisconsin, sponsored a preview of the film to about one hundred viewers in Milwaukee. “I thought it was a really brilliant film. I lived during that era, and the film was accurate,” he told Life Matters Media. “It was a time of great panic and desperation. McConaughey and Vallée did an excellent job of presenting the zeitgeist.”
Weisberg said he believes many men diagnosed with H.I.V. still view it as a death sentence, even though treatments now allow them to live longer than ever before, with a better quality of life. “People don’t have these types of conversations. They don’t want to talk about death,” he said. “And they still get a heart attack when testing positive.” But Weisberg points to the increasing number of individuals from the LGBT community in film as evidence of a shifting culture more open to discussions about the end of life and the lives of gays and lesbians. “We are seeing a sea change. This film shows the first time a patient went head-to-head with the medical establishment and won,” he said.
The film is currently in wide-release across the U.S. Get tickets here.