Dallas Buyers Club – Jean-Marc Vallée asks how should crises affect a system? (Film review)
There are no spoilers in this review.
If Dallas Buyers Club succeeds at anything (besides Matthew McConaughey teriff performance) it reveals the devastating impact, not necessarily of prejudice, but the first worlds astounding inability to act when a true crises hits. The FDA (in this country it is the TGA – Therapeutic Goods Administration), whether you think they are “good” or “bad” with regards to the thorny issue of their relationship with “large chemical corporations” (the bogeyman of the late nineties early naughties) the fact remains they have red-taped themselves and the medical association into a corner that builds an insular wall around any motivation to act with speed in order to save lives. The very real issue is that disease like cancer, heart disease and in this particular case, HIV kill people, and in some cases they kill people quickly. In our ethical drive to produce cures, somehow its fallen on funded research to provide the answers, breeding a cycle of justification as the years clock by and more people die. Yet what stories like Ron Woodroof’s and films like Dallas Buyers Club show, is that the highly motivated will forge rapid connections, create vibrant symposiums, cross cutting red tape because the need for a cure is imminent.
Another film that addresses this issue with passion equal to Dallas Buyers Club is the excellent 1992 George Miller film Lorenzo’s Oil, again a true story, this time about parents with very little time to save the life of their child dying of adrenoleukodystrophy, who decide to work within the boundaries of the medical establishment, running their own documented experiments (just as Ron Woodroof did) and forcing the FDA into accepting a synthesised version of rapeseed oil citing large population consumption (in this case China) as enough evidence of the oils safety. In each film the striking difference between the varieties of research is urgency based on an intimate relationship with the disease. In the case of Dallas Buyers Club, as in the case of Lorenzo’s oil, the combative nature of the FDA seems to constantly posit obstacles along side the driving ambition of those close to the disease’s consequences, and the dying are relegated to support groups, which are very helpful emotionally, but create a division between the researcher and the sufferer that deprives each of the knowledge and wisdom of the other. Michaela and Augusto Odone (of Lorenzo’s Oil fame) decide to use the support group to build a symposium to gather the worlds disparate experts into the one room to share research, counter research and generally duke it out on behalf of rapidly searching for a cure. In Dallas Buyers Club the highly motivated dying, form an information network among the sufferers to find out what drugs are working for them and which ones are not. They use information that crosses borders to bypass stakeholders that may be negatively impacting on the speed of the process. What Woodruff didn’t have the social skills to create that the Odone’s did, was an information network that included ALL the stakeholders, rather than work only with a few, accommodating everyone’s interests, the only difference being their attempts to speed up an already working process.
While the HIV crises is definitely one about prejudice, and more devastatingly, a prejudice that contributes to ignorance and the willful withholding of helpful information, it is also about a system that was incapable of dealing with an emergency situation and in many ways fell back on that prejudice to protect itself. A big difference between HIV and adrenoleukodystrophy is the reduced numbers of the population affected, and the fact that the victims of ALD were small boys. Steven Soderberg deals with many issues involving disease inspired mass hysteria in Contagion, but again, this has an “innocent” victim at its core, and the disease in Contagion was an air-borne pathogen. HIV has a distinct difference because it is spread through the exchange of bodily fluids or blood, thereby creating a victim attack mentality – much like women and rape – where it is assumed that those who have not been affected have behaved in a certain way that caused their health, and the sufferer could have chosen not to be infected. Interestingly Dallas Buyers Club makes a hero of the very same kind of person Contagion makes a villain – the social networker promoting homeopathic and untested remedies – and yet both films (Contagion is fictional it should be noted) recognise this person as a stakeholder.
In this way Jean-Marc Vallée injects a freshness into the HIV discussion, by including the homophobia that is the enemy of information, but turns the questions against the disease emergency system itself. Everyone understands the ethical importance of the distance between research and sufferer, but the crucial distinction is that of time – the researcher does not have the sense of urgency the sufferer has and this is the sufferers gift, and part of why it is essential they are at the table in the symposium discussion on the disease, if they are informed enough to contribute to the urgent search for a cure, which Woodroof was, just as the Odone’s were. The cry of Dallas Buyers Club, while focussed on Woodroof, is of the importance of collaboration in times of crises between all stakeholders, and there is no greater stakeholder than the sufferer. This collaboration is exemplified in the relationship between Woodroof and Rayon (Jared Leto) who were previously arch enemies, until they had something rather devastating in common. Surely it is the task of the government to bridge the gap between stakeholders, build connections between them in times of national crises, rather than fall back into law enforcement, laws that are no longer serving the people they claim to protect.
One can’t discuss Jean-Marc Vallée’s very interesting and important Dallas Buyers Club without including a statement about the truly magnificent performance of Matthew McConaughey who brings another level of dignity to the film through his deeply engaged performance. Jared Leto as Woodroofs once nemesis and now closest ally Rayon is superb as well as the embodiment of grace and stature representing the never to be replaced thousands of misunderstood individuals carrying societies weight of ignorance on their shoulders. Both men give Dallas Buyers Club the form and framework it needs to be able to convincingly get Jean-Marc Vallée’s message across which is bigger than Ron Woodroof and concerns us all.