Dallas Buyers Club: The Limitations of Knowledge

We have been often told and taught that knowledge is power. That few things can free and empower you more than knowledge, for it provides you the power to distinguish —between the must-do and the must-not. On the other hand, ignorance is universally frowned upon as it chains you and restricts your scope. Ignorance also often spawns a much-despised vice: Arrogance. You would think that in a face-off between knowledge and ignorance — symbolized by the people who embody those values — the latter will not only lose but will also be lampooned. But Dallas Buyers Club, like most accomplished movies, cautions us to be wary of rigid definitions.

The year is 1985. Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is an electrician in Dallas who gets hospitalized when he’s caught off-guard by an electric spark. At the hospital he’s informed that he has AIDS. And that’s not it: Doctor Sevard (Denis O’ Hare) tells him that he has only 30 days to live. The curt euphemism is finally hurled at Woodroof: “Get your things in order.” When a movie character is informed that’s he going to die prematurely, the subsequent chain of events often take place: the character is dejected and silently accepts his fate, and tries to make his life ‘meaningful’ in his remaining days — both for himself and for others. Myriad films have been made mulling over what death means and how it makes one re-evaluate the meaning of life when one is running out of time. And I am not sure whether we needed another film to explore the same motifs by taking a well-trodden path. Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t take that route. Because forget taking no for an answer, Woodroof doesn’t want answers. He’s got it all figured out. It was obviously a mistake by the hospital, there’s no way he can have AIDS; he’s not a “faggot”. As he begins spewing invectives at the doctors, they seem suitably flummoxed. What do you really say to a man who’s supposed to die soon but is not ready to help himself, who’s not only haughty but also ignorant. But Woodroof can’t be more convinced: “Let me give y’all a little news flash. There ain’t nothin’ out there can kill fuckin’ Ron Woodroof in 30 days.”

Dallas Buyers Club

Woodroof storms out of the hospital. And this is not the only heated exchange that will take place between Woodroof and the doctors. The lines are firmly drawn: between the ignorant and the knowledgeable, between the doctors and a “drug dealer”. You can hardly see the doctors agreeing with Woodroof for they are everything that Woodroof is not: well educated, affluent, particular about the rights and the wrongs, and subsequently, respectable. And, in fragments, Dallas Buyers Club is the story of how one section of the society battles against the other because they have almost nothing in common.

In a week’s time, Woodroof finally comes to terms with the news: He can be both “straight as a rodeo” and also be diagnosed with AIDS; that he might just have only 30-odd days to live. He still doesn’t resign to his fate, though. So what if he’s diagnosed with a fatal disease? The doctors still don’t know anything. Arrogance, ignorance’s closest kin, still helps him stay afloat. But Woodroof is determined to find a way out. His method of finding information is at best haphazard and devoid of a pattern. He doesn’t search for information, he scampers for it: taking any information at its face value, without checking the source. Woodroof is the kind of a guy, who would probably read a pamphlet thrown on the road as seriously as he would read an encyclopedic entry. On the other hand, the doctors are much more cautious in their approach: playing by the rules, assiduously verifying the source, cogitating over the consequences. It’s an interesting little situation — the doctors have everything to lose, so they are wary of trying anything new; Woodroof, on the other hand, is reckless, throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. But this dichotomy derives its meaning from a place that’s less obvious: the conditioning of the white collared and the blue collared. The white-collared-to-be are taught rules, while the blue-collared-to-be are taught instinct more than anything else. It’s often said that you need to know the rules before you break them, but can the rules, at times, be so inflexible that they don’t allow you to see anything beyond their confines? Dallas Buyers Club asks this question quite effectively and repeatedly.

But it’s not the only question the film is concerned with. Its protagonist, Woodroof, finds himself in a strange situation where he has to rely on and work with the very people he so detests: homosexuals. Woodroof is openly homophobic. When he meets Reno (Jared Leto), a transgender, for the first time in the hospital, he makes no effort to hide his disgust. Reno introduces himself, and Woodroof snaps back: “Congratulations… fuck off and go back to your bed.” But Woodroof is treated by others the same way he treats the homosexuals: he’s looked down upon — his friends have deserted him, he’s been fired from his job. As his health begins to improve—owing to hit and trial combinations and trusting someone who’s been similarly ostracized (a doctor whose license has been revoked)—he’s convinced that he has stumbled onto something. He partners with Reno and forms a Dallas Buyers Club, which sells unapproved drugs to the other homosexuals. Thrown away by his ‘own’ people, Woodroof has nowhere else to go but join hands with the group of people he can’t stand. He begins frequenting gay bars to solicit clients for his club, and his office-cum-apartment slowly becomes a place where homosexuals come over to not only buy medicines but also spend some time. But Woodroof still carries a wall around him. The pointlessness of the self-created facade becomes apparent to him after some time: One night, he stands near the bar top in a gay nightclub and observes the night unfold in front of him. And this night is not any different from other ‘normal’ nights he’s been a part of: The air smells of alcohol, people are huddled together smoking up, multitude of couples groove to the music, rubbing their bodies against each other. We look at the crowd; Woodroof’s gaze has become ours. We can’t see a difference, can Woodroof?

A little later, the movie changes its tone again: for a brief while, it plays out like a heist movie, where Woodroof evades security personnel at the airport, on the US-Mexico border, and tries to slink his way out of the situation by prevaricating. Dallas Buyers Club plays out like separate mini-movies, but the different threads beautifully coalesce together; you wouldn’t find the tone and the concern of one mini-movie intruding into the other. It’s a master class for filmmakers, whose movies change in tone and spirit and where that change works against the film. The most recent example that comes to my mind is Motwane’s Lootera. 

And finally: Mathew McConaughey. How can someone write anything on Dallas Buyers Club and not mention McConaughey. The first thing that’s striking about McConaughey in the film is his gaunt frame. His T-shirt flails loosely, as if it has scant regard for McConaughey’s skinny, shrinking body. The second, the way McCanughey essays the different Woodroofs throughout the film. The different Woodroofs are so distinct from each other that they look and behave like separate characters all together. McCanughey has not only become the character—a tired cliché used to describe an actor playing an author-backed role—but what’s stunning is that he has also become the different transformations. McConaughey is different Woodroofs at various points in the movie: When the film opens, Woodroof is an arrogant, homophobic ignoramus, who’s possibly one drunken night away from a bloody brawl; he soon metamorphoses into the wily, mercantile Woodroof, who begins monetizing his serendipitous discovery but is still homophobic, and finally towards the movie’s end, he’s the tired, mellowed down Woodroof—with sunken cheeks and freckled face—who’s perhaps understood that despising people for being ‘different’ doesn’t take one anywhere, that choice is probably not such a bad word. That one must not short change oneself just because the others know better. Because no one has all the answers.

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