Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Dallas Buyers Club

This film has been staring at me from the 'waiting to be watched' shelf for some time - last night it won. This is a powerful film. The acting is powerful. The story is powerful. The depth of human existence it explores is powerful as is the hope that it points to. At a time when America needs a popular mass movement to co-ordinate its resistance against a deaf and self-serving government, to re release this film as inspiration might be a timely thing to do!

Set in the 1980s world of macho cowboy Texas, this film features a community where rodeo bull riding, alcohol, sex and drugs are the normal activities, for the men, punctuated only by having to go to work for those lucky enough to have a job. At one point the lead character describes normal life as "ice-cold beer and bull riding".

That may well be the context but the film explores two important areas. Firstly it explores how poorly equipped governments are in terms of their ability to respond quickly and helpfully to emerging new diseases and how the murky waters of pharmaceutical corporations' finances may or may not buy access to markets. Secondly it explores homophobia and transphobia as it tries to explode the myth that HIV and AIDS only exist within, and therefore are only a problem for, the gay and transgender communities.

The central character is Ron Woodroof played by Matthew McConaughey - also a native Texan, who lost a lot of weight (38lbs) to play the role. He doesn't so much play the role as inhabit the character and is fully deserving of the Oscar he picked up for doing so, as is Jared Leto who also won an Oscar for playing trans AIDS patient Rayon. Jennifer Garner puts in a strong performance as Dr Eve Sacks.

McConaughey before losing weight and as Roy Woodroof in the film

The film is based on a true story and gives an authentic feel to the desperate hopelessness of those with HIV and AIDS in the mid 1980s when no reliable treatment or therapy existed. All that was available were trials of possible new treatments with horrific side-effects which seemed to offer some hope for delaying death - and then only if your hospital was chosen by the pharmaceutical companies to take part in the trial (for which they paid the hospital and lead physicians handsomely). Medical ethics and the hippocratic oath come under close scrutiny in this film and the only clinicians that emerge with any integrity are Sacks and Vass who has to practise in Mexico as the US withdrew his licence because he offered the wrong kind of help to those with HIV/AIDS.

Many of the characters travel similar arcs and the narrative is driven by their evolution. To begin with Woodroof is a self-obsessed hedonist who is angry that unprotected sex, drunkenness and drug addiction should have any consequences beyond a hangover. By the end of the film he has changed significantly and is more concerned with helping as many sufferers as possible, rather than his original goal of making as much money as possible. Despite the transformations in all the main characters, including a more accommodating view on gay and transgender people, it is essentially a film that documents how much Woodroof can do before he dies.

It is a sad film, a moving film, but also a film about hope, love, communities of suffering and human ability to rise to a challenge in a time of crisis. It is also a damning indictment of the USA's Food and Drug Administration and how so often it appears to act unilaterally and not in a way that takes account of the outcomes of foreign drug trials - except when it benefits American pharmaceutical companies. It also highlights the inability of the law to act with any compassion and the institutional bureaucracy that underpins government, growing fat in the process.

This is also an important film, not only because it is a very good piece of cinematography with great acting, but through the script it offers a valuable social commentary on a period that has all too easily been forgotten - except by those living with the aftermath of it. If you have strong resolve and can put up with expletive-ridden sentences, then do watch this is you haven't already seen it. For me, it's another film worthy of 9/10!

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