Unaffordable Care, by David Bax
In 1985, when Ron Woodruff found out he was HIV positive, he’d never heard of Obamacare. Over the next few years, as Woodruff developed a profitable club made up of members with HIV and AIDS who paid him for access to foreign, unapproved medicine, he remained unaware of the Affordable Care Act. In 1992, when screenwriter Craig Borten interviewed Woodruff months before his death, thereby embarking on the twenty-plus-year process of bringing this story to the screen, they never mentioned the new health care law once in their 25 hours of conversation. Yet despite this complete divorce from the most current of current affairs, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club is a movie for the moment.
Matthew McConaughey plays Woodruff, a hard-living Dallas electrician who gets injured at work and learns at the hospital that he has HIV; he has, in fact, had it for quite some time and his abuse of alcohol and narcotics has weakened him so much that the doctors give him a month to live. This diagnosis awakens a heretofore unknown resourcefulness in Woodruff, who first worms his way into receiving drugs still undergoing FDA approval and then into bringing entirely unapproved medications across the border, supplying them to members of his club, all of whom pay $400 per month for the privilege.
A lot of money changes hands in Dallas Buyers Club. Woodruff’s clients pay him membership dues. Pharmaceutical companies and the FDA pay hospitals to conduct trials. Cash is confiscated by federal agencies. This fiscal focus clues us in that there’s more going on here than the admittedly very compelling story of a man prolonging his life and those of others while battling to overcome his deep-seeded homophobia. This is, perhaps foremost, a study of health care as a business.
It’s an even-handed study, at that. In microcosm, Woodruff’s organization operates within the same vague paradigm as health insurance. For a monthly fee, everything is covered. People get their medications and Ron gets rich. It works. That is, it works right up until it doesn’t. Some dying people can’t afford the membership fee. And, when the pharmaceutical corporations and the FDA get wind of the practice, they realize it’s taking money away from their established and highly profitable way of doing things, in which the labyrinth of tests and approvals and favors and backroom deals sees to it that a lot of money is made well before anyone actually gets help. Conveniently – as well as accurately – this works as both a left-wing attack on corporate corruption and a right-wing attack on bloated bureaucracy.
As rich a vein as the ‘health care for profit’ theme may be, it’s ultimately lucky for us that Vallée and his cast know they’re not making a documentary on the subject. They raise a wealth of issues but are always sure to do so under the surface of a strikingly and vibrantly realized tale of humanity, played out on the faces and in the lives of recognizable humans. McConaughey uses his familiar cowboy charm but does not ignore the streak of bullheaded chauvinism that often comes along with such types. It gives both the audience and the performer more than enough conflict to sustain the whole picture. Meanwhile, Jared Leto gives what is likely the performance of his career as Rayon, Woodruff’s transgender business partner. And Jennifer Garner, as the sole medical professional willing to listen to Ron’s objections, is better than usual at her standard character who is as professionally competent as she is emotionally naïve. If, on the page, both Rayon and Garner’s Dr. Saks are a little too pure of heart, the actors are always there to pull the film back from the brink of oversentimentality, papering over the contrivances with unspoken looks and pauses.
Dallas Buyers Club is the rare, inspiring real-life film that doesn’t insult its viewers. It has a message without preaching and it is moving without being disingenuous. It is relevant and applicable to present-day events and experiences because, like the best art, it is both universal and pinpoint specific. As are most of our lives.