In 1985, Ron Woodroof is diagnosed with HIV. Faced with bleak prospects for a barely-understood disease, he starts smuggling unapproved medications, selling them on to other patients – forming the “Dallas Buyers Club”. This, however, draws the ire of the FDA.
The best thing about this AIDS biopic is the subject matter, something niche, interesting, a story you know to be real despite its natural (but not to say just) obscurity. The story of an underclass within underclasses, it deserves its moment in the public eye. At the front, Matthew McConaughey lends a steady-hand as real-life Cowboy-cum-entrepreneur Ron Woodroof, though Jared Leto’s fictional Trans-cum-PA Rayon is the real star-turn here (both would win Oscar gongs).
However, what holds this back is a dubious one-dimensionality that only serves to expose the screenplay’s weaknesses. Take AZT – an early AIDS drug portrayed here as a corporate con making the sick sicker. Ron Woodroof sincerely believed that to be the case, and this being a Ron Woodroof biopic, the film has a right to portray those beliefs. But my suspicions grew. Why did Woodroof’s Doctor also peddle this belief? Her arc culminates in dopey melodrama as she tells the unsympathetic bureaucratic stooges on the hospital board they’d have to fire her before she was going to quit over the issue.
But wait. Maybe the drug is as dangerous as we’re being led to believe. Why else would this opinion be propagated in the movie by a medical professional, as opposed to only being the half-informed (but understandable) view of a patient? My suspicions were confirmed in the most clumsy, ill-thought epilogue I can remember, which informs us, as if it squares things up, that AZT actually saved millions of lives.
Conflating the subjective viewpoint of its biographical subject with the entire locus of the film was symptomatic of its failings. I understand why board pen-pushers and the FDA would’ve looked like unsympathetic bureaucratic stooges in the eyes of Ron Woodroof. I also understand why it would’ve been desirable in the eyes of filmmakers to play this up — dropping into Movieworld where morality is black and white and Baddies are fought. But complex, real-world issues demand a subtlety lesser screenplays often fail to grasp. As does this.