The relationship between a doctor and a patient is a tricky one. For a patient it entails an extreme amount of trust in a stranger. For a doctor it requires the ability to see each of a myriad of patients day after day as their own individual entities with their own individual ailments and concerns.
Dallas Buyers Club, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, explores the nature of that relationship in the midst of the lethal ignorance that plagued the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club follows Ron Woodroof, played by Matthew McConaughey in a Golden Globe-winning performance. Woodroof is an electrician who enjoys rodeos, recreational drug use and rampant sexual conquest. In 1985 Woodroof also doesn’t understand that two out of three of those hobbies are likely to cause HIV. Woodroof has the social sensibilities you’d expect from a guy who goes to rodeos in Texas in 1985, and upon being told he has AIDS and somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 days to live, his first defense is an insistence that he’s not gay.
He eventually comes to terms with his lot in life and goes about fighting to survive any way he can – an undertaking that leads to Woodroof both helping countless other AIDS patients across the country and battling the FDA over what treatments he has the right to seek and partake in within the United States.
Woodroof’s battle with the FDA is the source of external conflict in Dallas Buyers Club as well as the aspect of the film I find myself dwelling on the most.
On its face Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t seem like a scary movies and I doubt anyone would categorize it as such. But it’s terrifying. Woodroof lived in a time in which people were dying and there were simply no answers. For an AIDS patient in the mid-80s options were extremely limited. Dallas Buyers Club presents two: luck your way into an FDA drug trial, pray you don’t get the placebos and hope against hope that an experimental drug actually works, or, join a buyers club where a fee gets you a subscription to questionably tested, FDA-unapproved vitamins and supplements that, when partnered with healthy living, can help patients survive another day.
Working with the FDA means a potential death sentence in the name of medical progress. Disavowing the FDA means potentially slowing down government funded research, and is absolutely no guarantee of survival. In Dallas Buyers Club, in the face of certain death, there is no wrong choice because for AIDS patients in the 1980s there wasn’t enough information available to make a right choice.
By the time I was old enough to know what AIDS was it was no longer a death sentence. By the time I was born polio was a relic. That’s because of wild advances in medical research that came with a very real, very human cost. Dallas Buyers Club puts a face on that cost.
Calling a movie, or any piece of entertainment for that matter, “important” has always sounded silly to me, but I think I would deem Dallas Buyers Club an important movie. It’s important because it’s a portrait of dying by way of the unknown. In my lifetime there hasn’t been a radical new medical threat that the world just straight up does not understand. Today, if you are diagnosed with most any disease you have nearly the whole of human experience regarding the topic available at your fingertips.
The thought of going into a battle for your very life with such limited information is a frightening and alien one, and it’s one that Americans 30 years ago and people in less modernized countries around the world today live with. Dallas Buyers Club gave me the opportunity to understand that notion on some small level and to peer into the medical past and appreciate modern medicine and my own health, two things I’ve simply understood as a given.
Within reason, every human being has a responsibility for their own life and survival. Luckily I live in a country and in a time where that responsibility can be fairly confidently placed in the hands of a medical professional. Dallas Buyers Club instilled in me the understanding that that confidence is very much a privilege and that it has not always been and may not always be the case.
1. Does the responsibility for one’s health lie more with doctors and regulatory agencies, or with the individual?
2. McConaughey, am I right?
3. Who the hell is the Yellow King?
For more on this year’s award-nominated movies: