– Arkaprabha Chakraborty
Dallas Buyers Club is a special film in 2013’s vintage crop. It traverses throughout that fine line where biography ends and drama begins in the filmic medium. Perhaps this is an inevitability given how the film itself is a superimposed composite between the two. It is fitting then, that both parts are given their due in Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal of Ron Woodroof, the AIDS-afflicted protagonist of the film. While it is certainly true that Ron Woodroof and his story is well-portrayed for the most part, there is also, severally a great amount of ‘composition’ in its most literal sense, where stories, anecdotes and a small amount of romanticism are woven together to flesh out (an ironic term when you realize that McConaughey lost 15 kg for the role) his character. The supporting characters of the film, on the other hand are wholly such ‘compositions,’ imaginary on the one hand, yet encompassing several realities on the other. When the film begins, however, Ron Woodroof is as bigoted as any of his friends and the people he fights against for the rest of his life.
It is not until Ron Woodroof’s affliction causes his othering, from both his old self and his old friends, that the film truly begins its discourse. An ugly word in this context, since the whole film aims to show (at a vaguely biographical level) how State machinery and its embodiment in the film, being the semi-educated white Christian male, try and repress this growing minority and silence their discourse through shame and fear. The societal and the organizational work hand-in-hand yet with mutual exclusivity and unawareness of how they constantly toss this doubly rejected segment of people back at each other. Organizations like the hospitals and the FDA are at this point in time, the early 1990s when facts about AIDS are only beginning to emerge and rumours are rife, only concerned with drug pushing and ejecting the afflicted back into society with half-baked ideas about the disease. The afflicted only know that the drugs which the FDA approves of and the hospital sells will be what prolongs their lives and there is for the organizations a constant fear of their being upstaged or undermined. Society, on the other hand, knows even less and fears much more, where rumour-mongering destroys ordinary lives. The idea that any unsafe sexual practice, and dirty needle, any exchange of fluid can lead to the disease was still not a popular idea. What was popular, though, was the idea that AIDS was only a disease which was spread among homosexuals, transgenders and generally “deviant” people. This leads to the afflicted desperately scrabbling to somehow rid themselves of the disease, their sole legitimate recourse being the route approved by the FDA which we have seen is by no means faultless. But one only needs to see Ron’s friends firmly begin to believe that Ron was secretly homosexual and stereotype him accordingly before shunning him after they find out about his illness, when he was one of the most obviously heterosexual persons in their circle, to corroborate this idea.
In the face of such pressure from state, society and additionally the unspoken pressure of imminent and unpredictable death, it is small wonder that the characters, McConaughey’s Woodroof, Jared Leto’s incredibly portrayed Rayon are impossibly compressed. They cannot be combustible because they simply do not have that luxury in their bid to survive while trying to help others survive. The undercurrent to all this is Woodroof’s personal change. One may very well argue that personal change is an inevitability in any drama, in any fictional text for that matter. The delineation is, therefore, in the depiction. The dichotomy of Woodroof’s weakening body against his opening mind is potently displayed by McConnaughey’s impressive acting just as much as it is by Jean-Marc Valee’s brilliant pacing, shooting and direction.
Leto’s Rayon, on the other hand, is a character that has little trajectory in the sense that he has always been on that other side where Woodroof finds himself. As the anchor to Woodroof’s frenetic fight against bureaucratic injustice, against himself and against society, Rayon is both saviour and symbol for him. Remaining unconditionally supportive to the point of selling his insurance policy to keep the Buyer’s Club afloat, Rayon also is a continual reminder to Woodroof of the populi he is fighting for.
There is ultimately a supernova-esque sense of futility to the life of Ron Woodroof, ending (after much personal development) as we knew it would, with an untimely death, even if it was delayed by his determination. Using several drugs from all over the world which he did not know the effects of, it could have gone very horribly wrong for him. Having established the Dallas Buyer’s Club and sustained it, Woodroof’s personal journey is truncated and with the FDA increasingly monitoring mushrooming buyer’s clubs all over America, it is not hard to imagine what lies beyond the film’s ending. AZT is now on the WHO’s list of essential recommended medicines to fight AIDS. But then the question has never been about Woodroof being in the right in terms of his scientific knowledge. The question has been with the ‘my way or the highway’ approach of the FDA. It is almost a foregone conclusion that Woodroof and his club will die. The importance lies in the attempt to question a homogenizing discourse.