Dallas Buyers Club, 2013
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Writers: Craig Borten (screenplay), Melisa Wallack (screenplay)
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
That’s it? A man wrangles his life from the jaws of death and runs a hustle during one of America’s worst Judgment Days and the best title Hollywood could come up with is Dallas Buyers Club? This film is only barely about a buying scheme. At its core, it’s about the spirit of a man who must change his life and, in so doing, engage a society that also must change.
Matthew McConaughey’s ravaged visage is on every ad for the film. It’s the spitting image of a man who just won’t quit. Hidden behind sunglasses with a tipped cowboy hat and a life-loving attitude, he might be uttering the words of Yeats:
‘Send war in our time, O Lord!’
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind,
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate. (Under Ben Bulben)
Yeats’ words capture the verve and nerve of Dallas Buyers Club perfectly. Ron Woodruff is a man shocked into awareness of a life he’d taken for granted, a man fighting a losing battle with death, a man who opens his eyes to truths he could’ve lived a lifetime without knowing, a man outrageous enough to play a con game on the gatekeepers of authority to extend the days of his life and bring the lives of a few others along with him. As Yeats’ poem implies, it’s not one man’s life but the potential one man signifies that is on the line.
From the beginning to the end of the film – and the end of Ron’s life, which came seven years later than the 30 days he was initially given – McConaughey infuses a despairing story with amazing energy. The story of Ron Woodruff, a man thrown from the life of a Texas rodeo bull-shitter to an AIDS crusader dispensing hope and truth is no conventional story. However outrageous Woodruff was before he got his death sentence, the prospect of a short horizon threw him into high gear. He became the man he’d have never become when –in Yeats’ words – “He completes his partial mind.”
I’d say it like this. Fucking fabulous Matthew McConaughey brings a whole lot of righteous fucking to the side of those who are getting fucked over in Dallas Buyers Club, namely those who had the bad luck to contract the deadly HIV retrovirus in the homophobic world of the 1980’s. The film starts with McConaughey fucking two women in a bullpen outside a rodeo ring, jumps to him running a con on a group of cowboys and next shows him leaping fences to escape a sure beating from the guys he’s just outwitted. His way out is to punch a cop and this is how we learn that Ron Woodruff is a guy who makes friends as well as enemies. The cop drives Ron home. And Ron asks about the cop’s dying dad.
A.O. Scott of the New York Times describes McConaughey who plays the real-life, heterosexual and homophobic Texan, Ron Woodruff, as “Skinny as a whippet and fierce as a snapping turtle.” When Woodruff, a sometime electrician when he’s not running a con, sticks a screwdriver in a machine box, he’s knocked unconscious and transferred to a hospital. It’s there he receives the 30-day death sentence that will change his life. He’s diagnosed HIV positive with a t-cell count of 9 – normal is at least 500. He ought to already be dead.
McConaughey, in the role of Ron Woodruff, undergoes a personality change in Dallas Buyers Club that, without a ghost from his past sins in sight, is revealed event by event. We see change as it’s happening — just plain hard facing up to his destructive and damaging homophobic attitudes and behavior. In real life, psychological change with lasting power is not a fairy tale. It holds up when emotions run hot and minds narrow. In the hands of McConaughey, we get to see Ron transform from a Texan who wanted nothing more from life than to party and ride bulls into a man with a heart and balls of his own. And we see a human revolution coming in one man.
With, perhaps, a sleight of hand performance, McConaughey turns from a con man who takes advantage to one who gains advantage. He made an end run around medical personnel, border patrols, substance abuse police and the FDA to help disenfranchised HIV and AIDS victims. In the 1980’s, Elizabeth Taylor was the only one who could get President Ronald Reagan to say the word AIDS out loud. (He did it once for her in public and he never did again.) For any man or woman who’s ever been caught under the foot of an ignorant society, the tricks that this headstrong rodeo jumper pulls off are good for more than a laugh. Heads drop in respect. One hopes to emulate him. The movie deserves a better title, one that brings more people out to see the workings of a man making, not just hoping to make change.
Giving up arrogance is not easy.
First, Woodruff sticks to his game. He cons a hospital attendant and buys AZT illegally.
When that gig is up, he goes to Mexico – it’s just across the border from Texas. There he meets a doctor who enlightens him to the “I” in HIV… immunodeficiency. And he makes his first change. He gives up drinking and drugging.
But when he gets a little healthier, old habits kick in. He can get rich taking the Mexican, unapproved FDA pills back into the U.S. and selling them to desperate men. This is his first wake up call. Desperation is not the defining bond. A con artist depends upon instilling confidence and gay men don’t trust him. They won’t talk to him much less buy anything from him.
Frustrated, he’s vulnerable. He needs a way to get back on top. When Rayon (a tranny who attempted to befriend him in the hospital – exquisitely played by Jaden Leto) climbs in his car, at first wanting to buy his pills and then telling him to take his homophobic self and stuff it, he’s ripe for a change. Rayon’s already beaten him in cards and now gets her way with him in a deal.
At arm’s length, making a business deal, and never showing vulnerability, Ron partners with Rayon as fully as anyone in his life. Her caring and commitment invisibly get under his skin and she gets into his heart. A pivotal scene occurs in the local market when his old buddy, as homophobic as Ron used to be, throws him a humiliating joke about Rayon. Ron throws him into a hammerlock and his true colors begin to show. He makes the old buddy shake hands with Rayon. Anger is still the fire, vulnerability still the fuel, but he’s not alone.
What a well-defended man, out of touch with his feelings of vulnerability, doesn’t count on is the influence of kindness from a stranger. And Ron’s business is paying off. He’s living high and, in his own mind, pulling off his scam but he’s also helping others and developing an attachment to Rayon – at arm’s length, of course. It’s only later when Rayon is clearly dying that Ron hugs her, both of them moved to tears by the bridge they’ve gapped in their own lives.
For Ron, any kind of acknowledgement that he’s not the only one wronged and hurt is a change. But now feelings of caring for others begin to seep out. He gives an unapproved anti-dementia serum to the cop he bopped for his dad who’s losing his mind. He refuses to screw a prostitute. He wins over the woman doctor with logic and charm. He becomes a master negotiator, turning the mind of a con artist to a higher task that benefits others who, like himself, are suffering. He no longer stands alone, a lone macho sufferer to whom others owe service. What’s happening to him is happening to others and he can help.
Sadly, Woodruff begins to get busted and sued. He turns the art of the ‘con’ to broader possibilities. In defying death for himself, he defies it for others because a con man can’t run a con without others. A walk in a gay man’s shoes expands the way he thinks about himself. He hires a lawyer.
The next pivotal turn for Ron is when Rayon dies. When Woodruff rages at the hospital after Rayon dies, the lady doctor confronts him with “She was my friend too.” And Ron drops his hands to his side. This marks the beginning of Ron stopping quick, shifting focus and turning his habit of anger into empowerment. He fought the authorities until he died seven years later, 2557 days instead of 31, on September 12, 1992.
Those of us who visited friends in hospitals marked with the dreaded red X’s quarantining their rooms in the 1980’s know how much it matters that people with power grasp that we’re all in this together. We all have to get out of our comfort zone and embrace our prejudices, give up our arrogance.
That doesn’t mean hoping the ghosts of Christmas past will visit with a quick fix. It means making slow and lasting change. It means a determination to look to the future and not the past. Making a change in the habitual response of anger to feelings of vulnerability requires taking the perspective of others, sympathizing with the distress of others and committing ourselves to the hard work it takes to follow Yeats’ words and “complete our partial mind.”
Article Written by Dr. Jane Alexander Stewart
Newtopia staff writer Jane Alexander Stewart, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who writes essays about mythic themes in film, creates “Myth in Film; Myth in Your Life” seminars for self-exploration and travels a lot. Her film reviews have been published in the San Francisco C.G. Jung Library Journal, Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture and Los Angeles Journal of Psychological Perspectives. Jane’s popular essay on “The Feminine Hero in The Silence of the Lambs” appears in the anthology, The Soul of Popular Culture, and in The Presence of the Feminine in Film as one of its authors. She’s also presented myth in film programs at Los Angeles County Museum, University of Alabama and C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich. A collection of her reviews and other writing can be found at www.CinemaShrink.com.