[4 November 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Dallas Buyers Club begins in motion. More accurately, it begins in darkness, with sounds of motion, specifically, the breathing and moaning of two people having sex. As they come into view, moving, the camera moves too, as if trying to improve its view, framing and reframing the couple in a stall, the walls tall and wooden, the slats allowing narrow slivers of light.
The girl in this moment is never named or even very visible, beyond the facts of her long hair and slender figure. The man, in cowboy hat and baggy blue jeans, emerges into the better lit, more public space of the rodeo on which he’s laying bets, his own figure alarmingly thin, his face drawn, and his coughing noisy. Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is sick, you know, even as he refuses to. And again and again in Jean-Marc Vallée’s movie, that refusal is realized in motion, Ron’s own, as he dashes from the rodeo premises in this first sequence, chased and then beaten bloody by a bunch of cowboys to whom he owes money, and also the camera’s. Like Ron, it can’t keep still, as if looking for another option around a next corner, looking down a street even as the view is ever bordered.
These first perspectives are set in 1985 Dallas, where Ron believes his horizon, even if he can’t see it yet, remains before him. When, following his beating, he’s delivered to a hospital emergency room, he hears from a couple of doctors that he’s HIV-positive. In his place and time, that amounts to calling him a “faggot,” and he takes exactly the sort of umbrage you might expect. Perched on the exam table where the fluorescent lighting makes his pallor even more ghastly, Ron berates the doctors who stand earnest and blank-faced before him, both Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) and Sevard (Denis O’Hare). He gestures and stomps, he refuses to hear that he has just 30 days to live. Stomping out of the room, he heads directly back into his life, such as it is, drinking, snorting drugs, and having sex with anonymous girls, or at least watching his buddy do it.
It’s this last that worries Ron. When he can’t quite get back in motion, when he lapses into exhaustion, can’t pay rent on his trailer, and his body fails him in any number of ways, Ron begins to rethink the diagnosis, even to take it seriously. And so he grinds into another kind of motion, pursuing the yet-unapproved drugs he’s been told might help him, end-running around the blind trials and paying hospital workers for illegal supplies. His scamming worries Eve, who prefers to believe in the fundamental if extremely limited morality of the trials; it also impresses Rayon (Jared Leto), a fellow scammer who tends to wear sheer dresses and eye shadow.
It’s this threeway relationship that drives Dallas Buyers Club from here. As Ron pursues life, he discovers, through his research into the rudimentary sources available in 1985 that the FDA is corrupt, that alternatives exist, that hope depends not on faith in people looking to profit from drugs contracts, but in skepticism, in constant motion, pressing ahead, driving and scamming. That Ron comes to these realizations out of desperation doesn’t make them any less significant or effective, and as he engages Rayon in his efforts, he comes to see beyond his own initially, so dreadfully limited horizon.
Ron and Rayon meet in a hospital room, where they await their trial dosage and play a game of cards, a mini gamble at which Rayon proves adept. They forge a partnership when, after a trip to Mexico and an encounter with a Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), Ron finds drugs that might not only prolong life but might also be sold. That the business is illegal doesn’t provide much of an obstacle for Ron, who does some more research to discover that through a “buyers club,” he might provide subscriptions to treatments to clients as eager to stay alive as he is. As Ron recognizes that the majority of his buyers will be people he has long antagonized and whom Rayon can help to reach, Ron changes his own direction, and so finds another way to keep moving.
Just so, the erstwhile raging homophobe comes to see his customers—people—as such, not as others against whom he must define himself. It’s a feel-good lesson ordained by business practices that are by turns illegal, reckless, and ingenious. As the US government tries to shut Ron down repeatedly, he and his lawyer (Dallas Roberts) repeatedly finagle ways for him to buy drugs overseas and get them back into the States, scheming past all kinds of police, from local law enforcement and the FBI to the medications overseers whose primary interest remains pharmaceutical companies.
As much as Dallas Buyers Club extends a narrative of Ron’s transformation, alternately rollicking and poignant, and as much as that narrative remains exquisitely timely, as big pharma and other corporate villains to this day ordain markets and buy up government favor, what makes it most remarkable is the film’s delivery of that narrative. Cinematographer Yves Bélanger’s relentlessly mobile framing, so insistent, so aggressive throughout this experience, helps to sustain not only your emotional investment but also your understanding of what’s at issue here. Time is against Ron and others living with disease, and his need to outrun it, or at least try to keep up, is visible in every movement on screen, in Ron and Rayon’s kinetic performances, in Eve’s slow coming around, in their own company’s simultaneous elusiveness and availability. As these inadvertent activists can’t stay still, Dallas Buyers Club makes their sense of urgency vivid.