When I picture the 80s, I see scrunched-up leg warmers, primary-colored tights, high-cut leotards, and chunky off-the-shoulder sweaters Tae-Bo-bouncing in unison to “Eye of the Tiger” on a television of microwave thickness. I imagine the smell of aerosolized hairspray in the dressing rooms of Broadway’s Dreamgirls and the taste of glorified teenage angst served in The Breakfast Club. I hear the beats of Madonna’s “Material Girl” and feel the onslaught of the dancing plague made viral by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
But beneath the threat of environmentally unfriendly hair product dispensers and angry teenagers was a real danger, one so well known in present-day, first world, hygienic, retrovirus-aware America that we often forget how it horrified our country just thirty years ago. I’m not talking about dancing zombies. I’m talking about HIV.
Inspired by true events, Dallas Buyers Club follows the story of Ron Woodroof, played expertly by Matthew McConaughey. A promiscuous, intravenous drug using, and money-hungry electrician, Woodroof discovers he is HIV-positive with only one month left to live. Unwilling to chance getting the placebo in an early trial for HIV medication, Woodroof desperately goes to Mexico to bring back treatment for himself and – after realizing he can make a ton of money – for others. To avoid getting into trouble with the FDA, Woodroof starts the Dallas Buyers Club. He’s not selling drugs, he’s selling memberships – and there’s nothing illegal about that. For $400 a month, members get access to the treatment they need.
The film is an uplifting tale of an unlikely underdog taking action against not one but two antagonists: the federal government and the deadly virus itself. Matthew McConaughey transforms into an HIV-positive rodeo cowboy by whole-heartedly committing to each shade of Woodroof’s personality – from dismissively carefree to doggedly determined. Jared Leto turns in a brilliant performance as Woodroof’s partner in crime, an HIV-positive transvestite named Rayon. He shifts seamlessly between portraying Rayon as a confident beauty and helpless drug abuser. Leto and McConaughey’s dynamic performances bring out the best in each other. Their onscreen chemistry is sincere, powerful, and unforgettable.
The screenplay sneaks in witty dialogue to add some much-needed humor to the story’s weighty subject matter. McConaughey and Leto deliver fast paced lines that mock and tease with affectionate sarcasm. When Rayon first meets Woodroof, he takes a careful assessing glance and remarks: “I guess you’re handsome in a Texas-hick, white-trash, dumb kind of way.” Who knew two men meeting at death’s door could provoke such laughter? The jokes, though, don’t detract from the film’s more poignant moments, instead working with them to create a truly haunting portrayal of the 80s.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s bleak depiction of that decade differs so vastly from my bouncing, colorful pop-culture fantasy that, for the first half of the movie, I was shocked. Matthew McConaughey – once forever tan, muscular, and healthy – appears pale, hollowed, and sickly. He’s at first unrecognizable; and once recognized, he seems just a skeleton of his former self. A ghostly figure, he dwells in the sex, drug, and alcohol fueled world of the rodeo, riding down a path of dimly lit bars, foggy sexual encounters, black-holed needle scars, and eventually colorless hospital rooms.
Scarier still is the film’s portrayal of widespread homophobia and its effect on the treatment of HIV-positive patients. When Woodroof first learns he tested HIV-positive, he thinks it’s impossible: “I ain’t no f— motherf—,” he protests. After his coworkers learn he has AIDS, they distance themselves – not only because he has the disease but also because they think he’s homosexual. Woodruff’s inhumane treatment is appalling, and the film pulls no punches. It would be unbearable to watch if Woodroof’s journey to better scientific understanding of the virus, and his own greater acceptance of diversity, did not reflect our growth as a nation over these past few decades. While the ignorance of the past is hard to watch, seeing how we’ve grown gives one hope.
That’s not to say that everything has changed for the better. The evil villain of the film is the Federal Drug Administration, bullying those who just want access to better medication and more treatment options. The film depicts the FDA as a money-driven machine caring little about safety, effectiveness, or survival rates. They only approve the drugs from the highest paying pharmaceutical firms, which in turn only produce the drugs that will make them the most money.
Hoping to join the pharmaceutical world myself, I initially rejected this over-simplified representation. But upon reflection I realize that the story of a drug approved elsewhere but not in America strikes a little too close to home. Princeton’s recent meningitis B outbreak provides a mild example of the same problem Woodroof faces in the movie: medical treatment exists, but the FDA hasn’t approved it. Why not?
To stop the outbreak of the special type of meningitis plaguing Princeton, a vaccine approved in Europe and Australia was finally imported nine months after the first of eight cases. I fear what the repercussions of this delay could have been in a more extreme situation. If we still don’t have access to the medication we need – medication readily available and used in other parts of the world – has much changed since the 80s? The sick will stay sick unless better options are actively sought after and delivered. We’ve come a long way since the 80s, but evidently we’ve still got a long way to go.
Kristi Yeung is a senior in the English Department.