The Wolf of Dallas: Money, Stigma and HIV – Guest Review by Shehzad Kunwar

A Review of “Dallas Buyers Club” (USA 2013, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee). Released in the UK on Friday 7th February 2014

 

 

Say hello to Ron Woodroof, a ‘typical’ Texan. He loves the rodeo. He wears a white t-shirt, boots, a large belt buckle and, of course, a classic Stetson hat. He is a heterosexual aggressive man who loves drinking, drugs, gambling and women. Not the ‘typical’ person you envisage when you think someone with HIV/AIDS living in the 1980s. But after Ron is diagnosed with “HIV”, he becomes an “overnight champion” for human rights; in particular for the rights of those living with HIV to access unlicensed treatments. In an era where discrimination towards those living with HIV was rife, he is soon shunned by his friends and colleagues, gets evicted from his trailer and ends up in an apartment with a pre-op transsexual. His newest “enterprise” is selling FDA unapproved antiretroviral drugs to fellow end-of-lifers.

 

While acting in his new role pharmaceutical “drug dealer” Woodroof, played by Matthew McConaughey, discovers facts that elude health professionals: such as the significance of patients’ concerns and the value of achieving peace, rather than than prolonging life at all cost.

 

Based on the 1992, ‘Dallas Morning News’ article written by Bill Minutaglio, the script underwent multiple re-writes before funding was secured. With many actors competing for the role, it was McConaughey, who Woodroof’s sister said shared the same swagger and personality as her brother, who eventually secured the role.

 

Armed with a passport, and a strong sense of enterprise, Woodroof travels around the globe acquiring illegal drugs such as alpha-interferon. Ron creates his own pseudo-Big Pharma company in the form of a “Dallas Buyers Club” selling prescription-only drugs deemed illegal by the FDA

 

Moral ambiguity imbues the film, with the question of ethics as a recurrent theme. For example, in the representation of research, Woodroof and Big Pharma run clinical trials in parallel.  The numerous attempts made at shutting down Woodroof’s enterprise by the hospital and Internal Revenue Service, who he tries to bribe to keep his business going, is echoed by the pharmaceutical companies subsidizing the hospitals running the antiretroviral trials on their behalf.

 

Homophobia and ostracizing those who were ‘different’ are evident throughout the film. Director Jean-Marc Velee’s perspective of the deliberate targeting of HIV community groups, amongst the gay scene by Woodroof in selling his drugs, is paralleled by the pharmaceutical companies going straight to human trials of AZT, further exploiting and preying on the “desperate and dying”.

 

The character of Eve, played by Jennifer Garner, represents ethical medicine. She questions the pharmaceutical companies’ intentions in persevering with the clinical trials once the significant side effects of antiretroviral drugs became apparent. Her character also highlights the hierarchy that exists in medicine, then and now. As the film progresses, Eve’s voice as the younger, more empathetic doctor contrasts that of her boss Dr. Sevard. His desire to continue with the trial is directly juxtaposed with her disenfranchisement with it and continuing support for Woodroof’s work.

 

Much hype has surrounded Matthew McConaughey’s weight loss, but that is a small part of his meticulously researched performance. The subtleties and nuances of both his voice and expressions portraying a multi-dimensional figure earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

 

In some aspects it seems that the film is made for the undiscerning viewer, in its stereotypes of corporate America and each characters role displayed clearly in their costume. As another variation of the classic David and Goliath story, nothing is ambiguous here and with the constant voice-overs, there is no doubting the identity of the protagonist. Velee’s perspective is that there is a direct comparison between Woodroof and Big Pharma, with Woodroof’s success in that battle epitomised in his prolonged life beyond the 30 days he was given by the medical profession.

 

This film is a timely way to revisit the HIV/AIDS crisis and continues the work of titles such as “Philadelphia” and “Angels in America”. But unlike Denzel Washington’s character, in Philadelphia, Woodroof’s personal change is guided by greed rather than compassion. Vellee, ensuring that the film’s take-home message is heard loud and clear, amplifies this journey for the mainstream viewer.

 

Dr Shehzad Kunwar (independent film maker, photographer and musician): shehzadkunwar@doctors.org.uk