Sporting a bucket-sized cowboy hat and thinner than a cornstalk, Ron Woodruff is nevertheless a very familiar character to us. He’s a womanizing, alcoholic, rugged, obnoxious, insulting, son-of-a-gun. Loved in a certain cautious way by his friends, and appreciated for a compassionate heart under all the grime, Woodruff is still repulsive to us, as his skin literally drips with blood, sweat and cocaine. Though his gaunt figure is enough to haunt all of us as a creature from the hellish underworld of the west, it is Woodruff’s miraculous arc from a homophobic con-man to a hero for desperate AIDS victims across the country that makes this film so enchanting and heartwarming. The subtlety of Woodruff’s change, manifested through a brilliant performance from Matthew McConaughey as well as a carefully articulated script, makes for one of the best visualized character transformations on screen.
Set in Dallas in the 1980’s, as AIDS overtakes the country. This is the true story of a man faced with an upending of all his expectations and suppositions about life. Ron is invincible, a bull-rider who spends most of his time in the arms of cheap prostitutes and a white powder haze. In a fleeting, panic stricken moment, Ron’s life is thrown overboard with a diagnosis of HIV and little more than a month to live. The story then becomes one of desperation, of a man who suddenly knows that all stereotypes, all walls of fear and laws of society cave in the face of imminent death. Ron packs his body again and again with drugs enough to keep him floating for just a little longer, just one more day at a time. It’s then the next logical step for a man in his position to realize that to keep himself alive, he could also be making money keeping others alive. What begins as a quick-cash scheme turns into the Dallas Buyer’s Club, an extremely public organization that smuggles illegal and unapproved medications into the United States for AIDS victims, and snubbs its nose at any efforts from the FDA to shut it down.
Ron’s transformation is witnessed and partially inspired by his constant companion, a transvestite named Rayon. Played with a fierce diva power by Jared Leto, Rayon is fiery, and walks the walk. She shines with all the unfamiliarity of a queen and yet all the humanity of a young person grappling with the cruel reality of a young death. Rayon is dazzlingly beautiful, but it is her relationship with Ron that truly moves us. Ron is dedicated, and before we realize it, willing to give up all semblance of his former life for Rayon’s sake. After Ron violently forces a former friend to shake Rayon’s hand, the look shared between him and Rayon is heart-wrenchingly beautiful, and we become suddenly willing to forgive him of all his obscene transgressions.
Set in the pale yellow light of the dusty desert, in gritty gay bars and the underbelly of an already dark and gothic city, Dallas Buyer’s Club is not just a story of one man’s heroism, or about snubbing the corruption of higher powers. It is about human life, and what happens when you’re suddenly faced with losing it. Bill Minutaglia, the journalist who originally brought Woodruff’s story to light, writes how, “Very early on, Ron told me that he was doing this to stay alive. And like many people, that’s a story I love: someone rising to the occasion and behaving really differently because they’re faced with some unbelievable thunderclap in their lives.” Perhaps it is the reality of Ron’s inconsistencies, his selfish drive for survival, and how it transforms into an understanding that he can do more than just keep himself alive, that enchants us about his story. In one critical scene in the film, Ron returns after losing a legal battle with the FDA, to find his home filled with cheering and appreciative friends and fellow victims. Ron doesn’t swoop in with all the power and invincibility of Superman. He certainly isn’t a role model of virtue and temperance. But he fights, he struggles, he bites down into life and he survives.