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Driven by Mathew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club weaves together the story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic and racist cowboy who becomes an unlikely hero in the late 1980’s when he is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. During this time the AIDS crisis which started in 1981 with 337 reported cases then leading to 1989 with 400,000 cases worldwide was thought of as the “gay cancer”. Based on the true story of Ron Woodruff, writers were able to create a compelling order of events that examines the stigma that came with both homosexuality and having the HIV/AIDS virus in the 80’s through an unlikely friendship and the human instinct to survive.
In the opening of the film, we hear just what kind of lifestyle our unlikely hero lives. In the film’s opening moments, we get glimpses of cowboys bucking on bulls in a rodeo show as Ron is having hazardous sex with two women under the bleachers. These scenes are intertwined simultaneously and strategically to show how much of wild life Ron was living. Visually, the audience understands that Ron’s life symbolizes a rodeo. After the beginning shots, we get a first glance of Ron’s survival skills. Betting money on a pal who lives a life quite similar to his to ride a bull for 8 seconds puts him in danger when his friend falls off after 3 seconds. Ron bolts after his friend falls off and he is then chased until Ron sees Tucker, a local officer walking to his car. When asked by Ron to put him under arrest, he shouts at Ron “figure it out yourself” and that is exactly what he does, he punches the Tucker and is taken away in the police car. This gives the audience a glimpse of what Ron is willing to do for his personal survival.
Ending up in the hospital after being shocked by electricity whilst at work, Ron is given the diagnosis of HIV. In total disbelief because he had thought like everyone else did at the time that the disease was the “gay cancer” and only homosexuals can be infected, he is irrational and shows his bigoted and homophobic beliefs denying any involvement in homosexuality. When told he has 30 days to live, Ron demonstrates his stubborn independence and will to survive when he shouts “I got a news flash for all y’all, there ain’t nothin’ out there that can kill fuckin’ Ron Woodroof in thirty days”. Later that night him and his friend TJ along with two other women party in his trailer where is cocaine, alcohol, and sex involved. During his high Ron begins to see the number “30” more clearly on his calendar, and with his diagnosis hanging over his head he slowly starts to come to terms with the fact he has HIV. Ron’s fight for survival begins with him researching HIV/AIDS and how to medicate it. In the library, Ron discovers that there was a very likely chance he obtained HIV from unprotected sex with a drug-addicted woman. This scene brings in awareness that HIV/AIDS is not a “gay” disease and that heterosexuals are also at risk in getting the immune destroying disease. Back at the hospital, Ron demands the drug AZT, but Dr. Saks says she could not give him any because the drug is in testing with the FDA and not yet approved. Dr. Saks mentions that he could sign up for the test, however, some patients are receiving placebos to see if the drug works which could take years. What follows after are words spoken by Ron that ignites the story a selfish homophobic bigot who influenced change during the AIDS epidemic by pointing out the flaws of the FDA, giving hope for those to freely live their lives, and flag shipping one of the most significant movements for the gay community. “screw the FDA”.
During the HIV/Aids epidemic, the first antiretroviral medication for HIV, azidothymidine (AZT), had become available 1987. “As it turned out, their first weapon against HIV wasn’t a new compound scientists had to develop from scratch — it was one that that had been shelved. AZT, or azidothymidine, was originally developed in the 1960s by a U.S. researcher as way to thwart cancer; the compound was supposed to insert itself into the DNA of a cancer cell and mess with its ability to replicate and produce more tumor cells. But it didn’t work when it was tested in mice and was put aside.” Before the FDA approved the drug, doctors and hospitals performed human trials, placing half of their patients on AZT and the other on placebos though it did cause side effects (including severe intestinal problems, damage to the immune system, nausea, vomiting and headaches) it was deemed relatively safe. But they also had to test the compound’s effectiveness. “At $8,000 a year for users, AZT is said to be the most expensive prescription drug in history. “Some 35 percent of AIDS patients have either no health insurance or policies that do not pay for drugs. Many might be unable to afford AZT without the help of a temporary Government program that ends in September. All Americans bear the high cost of the drug, in taxes or insurance premiums.”
Determined to get the AZT drug, Ron begins gaining access to the drug through a hospital custodian. storms off but eventually finds a way to obtain AZT through a custodian in the hospital. After his connect runs out of AZT, Ron has a near death experience that lands him back to the hospital. Ron learns that the AZT he had been taking had been making him worse and causing more problems. This was not only a fact for Ron but for many other people infected with the virus. While hospitalized, Ron ends up meeting fictional character Rayon, a drug addicted trans whom he is hostile toward. Rayon shows Ron nothing but compassion in which personal opinion thinks this is a link between hetero and homosexuals as it was in the 80’s. Heterosexuals in the 80’s showed little to no respect for homosexuals and felt they didn’t deserve the same rights as them but when heterosexual began showing higher numbers in the infected they were becoming more linked as they both needed and searched for treatment.
After traveling to Mexico for more AZT, Ron discovered more than just that. Ron comes across more effective medications that suppressed HIV/AID symptoms. Ron then smuggles large amounts of the medications over the border and reluctantly sets up a business with Rayon, knowing there will be more clientele to follow. Through their medical co-op that delivers non-approved medicine to those who are infected, Ron slowly learns to appreciate the unique personality of Rayon. In one of the most dramatic scenes of the film, Ron forces his old homophobic friend, TJ, to shake Rayon’s hand. In this scene, Ron and Rayon take a trip to the grocery store and rayon is picking up every unhealthy item in the store and there is a married couple sense given off when Ron tells Rayon to put items back. The scene first starts off with Rayon and Ron in frame in rack focus. Rayon walks out of frame as Ron notices his old friend TJ. The following shots are over the shoulders of Ron and TJ as both of their worlds are colliding in the grocery store. Over the shoulder of Ron, TJ notices Rayon who is back with another item. TJ makes an obscene remark regarding Rayon’s sexuality not knowing Ron and Rayon are friends. Here there is still an over the shoulder shot to get the reaction of Rons friend TJ as Rayon comes into frame and Ron introduces his old world to his new world. After rejecting Rayon, Ron makes it a point that TJ will show respect and shake Rayon’s hand. Ron puts TJ in a choke hold forcing a handshake between the two. After the forced handshake Ron relieves TJ and suggests he goes back to where he came from. The scene conveys how much Ron has grown and changed from his own homophobic ideas and beliefs and he has chosen between the two worlds which he is going to stay in. Ron knows there is no turning back and no way he’s going to go back to the life he was living.
Working with Rayon in getting meds to those who were infected came with interference from the FDA and IRS as well as legal suits. The treatments from the co-op that substantially improved the health and the quality of life of those infected with the HIV virus weren’t FDA approved so and being profited off was not a good look for the FDA. The FDA didn’t have any stake in the drugs being sold by the co-op so they are not benefiting financially. Their influence on the FDA is obvious, and this influence is the main theme of the film. Ron is bringing in drugs that clearly help people, but because of the stranglehold the drug companies have over the legislature, he is not able to do this without getting into a great deal of trouble. The peak of Ron’s hero-istic egoism is when he takes the FDA to court after the FDA seized their drugs and any information on them Ron had, countless times. The judge hears Ron’s case and Barkley his there as well. The judge says, “The law does not seem to make much common sense. If a person has been found to be terminally ill they ought to be able to take just about any drug they feel will help … but that is not the law. Mr. Woodroof, there is not a person in this courtroom who is not moved to compassion by your plight, what is lacking here is the legal authority to intervene. I’m sorry. This case is hereby dismissed”. Ron left the courtroom that day hollow, defeated, and tired. After everything that Ron has been through and everything that he has done, he feels that nothing has changed at all. Ron comes back to his home and is greeted with applause from almost everyone he has ever helped. Ron finally realizes, at that moment, everything that he has done.
Beyond the themes previously addressed, Dallas Buyers Club really succeeds in capturing the extent of the AIDS epidemic, as well as the government’s greater emphasis on following procedure than showing compassion. By including shots of long lines stretching outside the door to Ron’s club headquarters, as well as shots of governmental figures breaking into the headquarters to confiscate various drugs, we are left with a vivid image of how difficult it was for those infected with AIDS to receive adequate medication around the mid-1980s. Couple this with the poisonous social climate of the times, and Dallas Buyers Club truly succeeds in allowing its viewers to sympathize with the plights encountered by those diagnosed with AIDS. Backed by fantastic, Oscar-winning performances from both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club functions as a compelling tale about men who dared to live and work around the system to provide more adequate medication to patients in need of assistance.
The mid-eighties saw an explosion in the number of AIDS cases across the world, and also an explosion in its perception as a ‘gay’ disease. Before his diagnosis, Ron was like much of the population who believed the disease was largely irrelevant to him and gave it little to no thought, because it was something that only a segment of the population contracted, and he was not the demographic that made up that segment. Ron’s story shows that shift in perception as it became clear that this was not just a disease that affected the homosexual population. The film also shows the stigma that went along with both homosexuality and with having the HIV virus, especially in a rugged and down-to-earth environment like the one Ron came from and lived in.
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