Scamming for Survival: The reckless life of an AIDS rebel

Matthew McConaughey, right, in “Dallas Buyers Club”

The gaunt cheeks and hollow, staring eyes of Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club will suggest many things to many people, including a redneck rodeo junkie and a portrait of Christ by El Greco. What his image will also recall, for people with memories long enough, are those friends who at the height of the plague years, came around less and less, because there was less and less of them to see; who made themselves scarcer and scarcer; and when they did turn up were thinner and thinner, until their faces became a mask of death and they simply disappeared.

That sense of vanishing is embodied by McConaughey, who isn’t going anywhere but up. It is unclear when he became an actor, but after a career of movies like “Sahara” and “Failure to Launch,” he started giving astonishing performances a couple of years ago, in “Bernie,” “The Paperboy” (woeful though the film may have been), as the strip-club owner in “Magic Mike” and then as the title character in this year’s “Mud,” which seems to have taken everyone by surprise and, if not for “Dallas Buyers Club,” would be the McConaughey film people are talking about.

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As it is, they’re talking about “Dallas Buyers Club,” and not all the talk is good. Should America’s biggest AIDS film since “Philadelphia” be built around a hero who’s not only hetero, but a raging homophobe? Probably not. But it isn’t really McConaughey’s problem. He does his job.

It is a job that began long before filming started on director Jean-Marc Vallée’s engaging, accessible, fact-based film, and the stunt dieting can’t help but be a bit of a distraction. McConaughey has long been among Hollywood’s more impressive physical specimens, so the massive weight loss he endured to play the real-life Ron Woodroof makes its own separate statement about artistic sacrifice and temporal beauty. But it also upticks the intimation of mortality that informs both the movie and its principal character, whose fragile shell McConaughey inhabits to a degree sufficient that we forget the act of wasting and think only of the intractable Woodroof, who in the mid 1980s, was given 30 days to live and persisted for six years.

During that time, by researching, smuggling and distributing AIDS drugs that were not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, he managed to take a little chink out of the wall of government intransigence permitted by President Reagan, who, as has often been noted, did not utter the word AIDS until six years had passed and nearly 60,000 people had died.

The only death that concerns Woodroof is his own, at least at first. An electrician and a rodeo clown, he lives a debauched life of hard-drinking, hard-drugging and sex with cowboy groupies in the stalls of the arena and is, as they might say in Texas, mostly hat and not much cattle. When a routine blood test comes back positive for AIDS, he greets the diagnosis of his doctors/researchers—played by Denis O’Hare and a wonderfully understated Jennifer Garner—with a torrent of invective, showering them with the F-word, and the other F-word, and it is unclear whether he is more upset about the idea he is going to die, or that someone might think he is gay.

Vallée, who is from Quebec and had a sizable hit at home with the family drama “C.R.A.Z.Y.” a few years back, does several things very well. One, he creates a sense of isolation around his character, even when Woodroof has created his network of pharmaceutical “clubs.” To skirt federal drug laws, the members pay a monthly fee of $400 and get all their medications “free.” Woodroof has no spiritual life; he is out to save himself from physical death and—why not?—make a tidy profit along the way. The sense that he is on a mission is slow in coming, accelerated to a certain degree by his friendship with Rayon (Jared Leto), an H.I.V.-positive transvestite who is the conscience of the piece. What Vallée is not afraid to do, abetted by two actors starving their way to Oscars, is to make the focus of his film so hard to like.

Similarly, what is worth pointing out about the screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack is its embrace of a key mechanical principle of moral fiction: Don’t send a message. Tell a story, and the message will follow. The true heart of “Dallas Buyers Club” is about a fairly repellent character receiving enlightenment. His homophobia dissipates; he discovers that the AIDS-infected are human beings worthy of his respect; and he finds out who his friends are—not the coke-snorting cowboys who shun him as soon as they find out he is H.I.V.-positive, or the landlord who locks him out of his trailer or, Lord knows, the F.D.A., which during the Reagan-Bush years dragged its feet to the point of genocidal neglect. (The feds are the black-hatted villains of the film).

But the film doesn’t thump a tub on behalf of brotherhood or sisterhood; it is a kind of thriller, put together like the most accessible Hollywood feature, and keeps the viewer engaged not via moral outrage but storytelling. Woodroof’s trips to Mexico, where he gets in league with a renegade American doctor (Griffin Dunne) dispensing cutting-edge AIDS medications, and whose work is leading up to the cocktail that would eventually prolong the lives of millions, is the stuff of a caper film. At one point, Woodroof disguises himself as a priest to get by border agents, the whole thing being played as something close to farce. Immensely entertaining farce.

Some may find this film objectionable. Shouldn’t we be satisfied, as viewers, with just having our dander worked up and our righteous indignation stimulated or even our tear ducts agitated by a story whose underlying tale is one of catastrophe, bias and government inertia? And without making a movie about a straight guy saving the gay world? Perhaps, but 2013 is not the ’80s, when the fear and hatred portrayed in the film were very real; and perhaps only someone like Ron Woodroof—a kind of mole in the world of AIDS—could have perpetrated the kind of audacious scam with which the movie is concerned. That itself is something to ponder—and not the only thing, in a movie that is most assuredly a story, and only incidentally a lesson.

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