Ron Woodroof wasn't someone who would let a little cough slow him down. It didn't keep him from his job as an electrician. From downing drinks with the guys at the bar. From snorting cocaine. From cavorting with women at a rodeo … two at a time.
It was just a nasty, nagging cold, he thought.
Until he ends up in the ER and gets a diagnosis he can't believe: AIDS. His doctor says he probably has no more than 30 days to live. Impossible, Woodroof argues. Because in 1985, the only people dying of AIDS are homosexuals and intravenous drug users, it's believed. He's neither, a fact he belligerently communicates to the hospital staff.
He deals with the news by getting drunk and high on cocaine while watching a friend have sex with two women at once in his mobile home. His friend wonders why Ron's not participating. "D‑‑n doctor cut your balls off?" he jokingly asks. Ron spills the beans … and is instantly an outcast. His old gang even goes so far as to lock up his trailer and scrawl homophobic slurs on it. A similar shunning awaits him at work.
Homeless, jobless and desperate, Ron still refuses to accept his one-month-to-live fate. Library research reveals that a new drug called azidothymidine (AZT) has shown promise in slowing AIDS' advance. But his hospital in Dallas won't give it to him. And Ron can't wait a year for the clinical trials to end and the Food and Drug Administration to approve it.
But he can use his natural-born gift for hustling to get a hospital janitor to start sneaking the drug out to him. And so he begins gobbling up AZT like candy.
It's not long, of course, before somebody puts the squeeze on Ron's blue collar "health care provider." And determined to keep his supply going, Ron heads to Mexico, where he's heard there's a doctor who will give him what he needs … which isn't AZT. The doctor down south of the border tells Ron that AZT is toxic. In its place, he produces a cocktail of alternative chemical remedies—none of them, naturally, approved by the FDA.
By this point, Ron has met a drug-using transvestite named Rayon, and the two have struck up a friendship that would have been unimaginable before Ron's dire diagnosis. Together they begin supplying pills to many of Dallas' gay AIDS sufferers through what Ron eventually dubs the Dallas Buyers Club.
Before he knows it, Ron is traveling the world (France, Israel, Japan, Mexico) in search of the latest cutting-edge remedies for AIDS … a new "helpful" habit that the FDA isn't at all happy about.
Insofar as Ron is trying to help people stay alive, his efforts to push back at the FDA can be construed as noble, maybe even heroic. (Much more on that in my "Conclusion.") And we see a great softening in Ron's heart when it comes to dealing with people who aren't at all like him. When Ron meets Rayon, Ron's just about as hostile and homophobic as he can be. But as their business partnership and friendship grows, he becomes a fiercely loyal friend to Rayon, going so far as to confront (albeit with a vicious chokehold) a former drinking buddy who begins hurling slurs at Rayon.
Ron's Dallas doctor, Eve Saks, isn't crazy about Ron's alternative-medicine approach. But her friendship with him deepens; she's kind to him and sympathetic to his cause. Never, though, does she breach any ethical boundaries—such as when Ron asks her to write some prescriptions for a promising new drug.
Ron confesses at one point that he longs for a normal life and children (in contrast to his wine, women and coke existence).
At a strip club, Ron begs God to give him a sign. It's a prayer that's seemingly "answered" when Ron recognizes that another patron is his hospital's janitor, a connection that nets him the illicit AZT. To deflect attention from his drug-smuggling activities across the U.S.-Mexican border, as well as in airports, Ron wears a Catholic priest's black shirt and white collar.
A poignant scene involves Rayon going to his rich father to ask for money to support the Buyers Club. Rayon jokes, "Are you ashamed of me? I hadn't realized that," which prompts his dad to say, "God help me." Rayon responds, "He is helping you. I have AIDS." Near death, Rayon says, "God, when I meet You, I'm going to be pretty if it's the last thing I do. I'll be a beautiful angel." Ron tells Rayon, "God sure was dressing the wrong doll when he blessed you with a set of balls."
The opening scene pictures Ron in a darkened stall at a rodeo having sex with two women. We see furtive, sexual movements. The next such scene pictures the aforementioned friend with two women, all three engaged in sex acts. (It's an explicit scene with graphic motions, sounds and breast nudity.) A flashback also shows Ron engaged in another sexual encounter. And we see him in the strip club, where the camera pays more attention to the topless dancers (wearing only g-strings) than he does.
After his diagnosis, Ron refuses to have sex with uninfected women, but it's hardly a chaste decision. We see him going at it (explicit movements and noises) with a female AIDS victim who comes to the club, and he also hires a prostitute "just" to see her naked. We see her with him, as porn plays on the TV behind them. Ron masturbates to pictures that include visible breast nudity. (We see his arm movements.)
Ron's bare rear gets a smidgeon of screen time. Rayon dresses and acts like a woman, and one scene shows him shirtless. Later, he's with a boyfriend who's very attentive. Ron accompanies Rayon to a gay bar where male couples are publically affectionate.
Beyond the prostitution, homosexuality and sexually transmitted infections, verbal references are made to erectile dysfunction, sex-change operations and Rayon wanting breasts. It's said that Muslim women aren't sexually available like American women.
Ron hits a policeman. He also gets into a fistfight at a bar, after which his foe (once a friend) is anxious to determine whether he has any "f-ggot blood" on him. Ron puts another ex-associate in a chokehold. He uses a shotgun to blast his way into his locked-up mobile home.
At a worksite, a man's leg is pinned (bloodily) beneath a vehicle's wheel. Ron tries to wire an electrical panel and gets badly shocked and knocked out.
Crude or Profane Language
More than 100 f-words, including a dozen or so that are paired with "mother." Almost 40 s-words. God's name is tangled up with "d‑‑n" 20 times, while Jesus' name is misused half a dozen. We hear multiple crude or obscene references to the male and female sexual anatomy, including three uses of a harsh phrase for performing oral sex. "F-ggot" is used as a slur a dozen times. Also: "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑" and "p‑‑‑ed." We see an obscene hand gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Ron drinks constantly, both with others and alone. It's a habit that AIDS doesn't blunt at all. He and others are shown doing cocaine, and he actually sells the stuff. So after learning he's got the terminal disease, Ron goes on a massive coke- and alcohol-fueled bender … that renders him unconscious. The diagnosis, though, ultimately prompts him to relinquish his cocaine habit, and he encourages others (especially Rayon) to do the same.
We hear a great deal about AIDS remedies, both pharmaceutical and holistic. We see Ron shooting one drug into his bare buttock. A lab test reveals that Ron has alcohol, coke, meth and AZT in his blood. Several characters smoke.
Other Negative Elements
Ron bets on rodeos. He lies. And despite his loyalty to Rayon, the Dallas Buyers Club is a business for Ron, not a charity. If someone doesn't have the $400 monthly needed for access to the drugs Ron sells, well, they're just out of luck.
Ron's shown urinating (from behind) alongside a road.
Ron Woodroof's true story was detailed in The Dallas Morning News by reporter Bill Minutaglio in 1992. And his series for the paper titled "Buying Time" is at its heart a David-vs.-Goliath contest. Ron Woodroof isn't a likeable fellow in many ways, but he's determined to buy as much time for himself and for his dying clientele as possible.
The film justifies Ron's FDA end-around by depicting the government agency as slow and, worse, under the thrall of greedy pharmaceutical companies more concerned with making money than helping AIDS patients. Those big medical conglomerates and the FDA are, here, narrow-mindedly obsessed with AZT—a drug the movie deems almost as deadly as what it's intended to combat.
Thus, the FDA isn't concerned with Ron's assessment of the drug's dangers. Instead, it's only interested in shutting him down to satisfy its various ulterior motives. That's how Ron's "underground resistance" comes to be portrayed as a noble and heroic one, with his illegal smuggling activities painted with a Robin Hood-esque brush. (And his efforts do indeed keep him alive for seven years after his death-sentence diagnosis.)
"The political reality of the era, of course, was far more complicated," writes Christopher Kelly for Texas Monthly, "and many HIV-positive people credit AZT with saving their lives. Nor does the movie point to anything more than anecdotal evidence that the club's regimen actually extended or saved lives. Instead, the filmmakers buy wholesale into Woodroof's righteousness and demonize anyone who dares to object."
So … Dallas Buyers Club offers a wince-inducing peek at what life for homosexual AIDS sufferers may have been like in the early years of the disease. And it stars a character who was just about the most unlikely advocate they could possibly have: a promiscuous cowboy type who, until he got sick, had nothing but contempt for the "f-ggots" he and his friends frequently ridiculed. In the process, we're invited into a world that those outside the gay AIDS community depicted here have likely never thought much about before.
The empathy the film builds for individual human beings who are suffering and dying can only be seen as a good thing. But in embracing Ron's and Rayon's painful stories, we're also asked to excuse and accept a slew of bad—sometimes illegal—decisions and actions, while staring wide-eyed at searingly seedy depictions of strip clubs and sexual encounters.