I have no idea what “The Academy” looks for or expects from someone when they select “The Best Actor” or the “Best” of anything. I have never been good at guessing who they will so honor; but somehow Matthew MacConaughey has put himself in their faces with his performance in “The Dallas Buyers Club”. No one could fault what he does to bring to life a dying man. His recognition this time will have nothing to do with his looks or his body. This is about his skills and how he uses them. And, he is not the only one in the cast who comes to life through a real, powerful, and deeply disturbing story. It isn’t pretty, and neither is he.
This film is not for everyone, and some will find it offensive and objectionable; but it tells a story that needs to be told. As stories go, you have to have been there. I suppose that is the way it is with old war stories from WW 2. It is a different experience for those who have been there. No one really would want to “be there”, but when you have been, you know the story differently.
Yesterday afternoon I did not set out to see this film. In fact, I might not have had I not opened the most recent edition of America, the Jesuit weekly journal, and noticed a review of “The Dallas Buyers Club”. So troubling and so challenging was the article that I changed my mind about another film and chose this one. Judith Dench can wait another week. I wanted to see what this was all about.
Having recently forked over a sizable portion of my pension for a drug I was told I needed, and while living through this national disgrace over the human right to health care, this story and it’s characters quickly came into focus for me. The Food and Drug Administration is the villain in this story, and the suggestion that this government agency which established to protect us might be more interested in protecting pharmaceutical companies at the expense of human life. While (as a judge says in a nearly final scene) the “law as it is written protects them.
As a priest through the 70s and 80s, I saw and felt the fear, the sadness, and the whole social dimension of AIDS. There was a “house” near a parish where I served in which men and women lived together and cared for one another as they died from AIDS. When once called to visit someone there, I faced all kinds of demons in myself for just a few moments, and there came face to face with the very demon Jesus came to cast out. I was a regular visitor in that house after the first initial shock at what I found in myself. This film took me back to that house on 16th Street once again. I saw the faces and remembered the names of some who had been abandoned and condemned by their own families. As Ron Woodroof is mocked, scorned, abandoned, and feared by his rough and tough cowboy buddies, his arrogant, homophobic life style collapses revealing a desperately lonely but very crude individualist who suddenly begins to face death finding himself among the living dead.
So much is said by a remarkable cast who tell a sad and moving story that can never be told by the countless men and women who died while a government agency protected itself and pharmaceutical companies. The leadership of this nation would not even acknowledge publicly this pandemic that deprived the human family of far too many bright, young, promising, and gifted people. Too many times I sat in hospital rooms with gloves, mask, and gowns holding the hands of young people slipping away from us wondering when someone was going to do something or say something.
All that aside, MacConaughey, brings a dead man to life. It is remarkable. Jared Letto in the role of Reyon is more than credible. He is consistent and somehow attractive as a flamboyant transvestite who becomes Ron Woodroof’s partner in their black market project to get alternative meds available for the sick. A scene in which Reyon sheds the costumes of his alternative life to beg his father for money is a moment of sadness beyond description. Jennifer Garner underplays the role of a doctor who becomes an ally for these two revealing the helplessness and compassion so many of us felt in those early days with this disease.
This is however, not just a story from history about the touchy subject of HIV infection and AIDS. It is today’s story about an even more touchy subject: a broken health care system and pharmaceutical companies out of control and way to cozy with the federal government. That story is told by a very unlikely hero: a good-old bull riding boy from Texas. Not for children. Not for the naive, and certainly not for those easily offended by rodeo cowboy language and loveless sex, this film is only for those who might want to be reminded of how far we have come and how far we still have to go with racism, sexism, homophobic attitudes, and most of all health care.