On day zero of Ron Woodruff’s thirty-days-to-live death sentence, he is in two prostitutes in a muddy bullpen at a bullfighting arena. He is a gambling drunkard running from the trouble he makes for himself. He, aside from the zings and whistles granted by cocaine, whiskey, and ejaculation, is as good as dead. Intellectually, spiritually, emotionally dead.
On day one, an on-the-job electrical accident puts Woodruff in the hospital, where he finds, much to his homophobic, 1985 stereotype-informed disbelief, that he has HIV. He’s a straight man, after all. It’s not possible for him to catch HIV. So he storms out. No way, he thinks, I ain’t gay, and I’m living forever.
But Woodruff is dying. It’s impossible for him to ignore the bloody coughs whirring noises splitting open his head. He goes to the library, reads up on the studies and statistics: the disease spreads through unprotected sex between any carrier and noncarrier, gay or not; it also circulates through shared intravenous needles. Woodruff suddenly remembers a girl he once hired who had pinpricks up and down her arm, and accepts he has HIV.
He does not, however, accept the thirty day sentence. Woodruff is a stubborn, sharp cowboy: he researches the drugs that clinics worldwide are trying on the disease; he discovers a Dallas hospital is hosting a 90-day double-blind placebic trial of the newest, latest and greatest drug, AZT; and he bypasses authority in order to obtain it. But his inside man at the hospital quits, and a fainting fit puts him back in the sick house, at the mercy of doctors contractually bound to test AZT on behalf of big pharma.
It is there, alone and inches from death on a hospital gurney, that Woodruff breaks the cliché of the terminally ill bucket lister. He has neither the cash for some tour of Europe, nor the embrace of his own end such a before-I-die trip implies. The immediacy of death instead alights in him anger and determination.
It also purges his prejudices. This is epitomized in an exchange with his hospital roommate, a trans woman named Rayon who is also HIV-positive. Woodruff initially rebuffs her friendliness, but when she offers to play cards—for cash—he agrees to chat. And when his calf cramps, paralyzing him in pain, he allows her to knead it out. Woodruff’s acceptance of Rayon’s physical help—help given by a person from whom he would never, because of his prejudices, ordinarily accept it—represents a larger theme of Dallas Buyers Club: with life on the line, allies are allies regardless of their identities.
After a trip to Mexico to receive un-FDA-approved treatment, Woodruff returns and teams up with Rayon. The medicine given to him there has shored up his immune system in ways AZT could not, and Woodruff, cash-hungry, has struck a deal with his doctor to sell the cocktail of drugs that put him back on his feet. He gets the goods across the border to Dallas, but cannot breach the mostly-gay market: Woodruff neither knows anything of their community nor can leapfrog the friction of his ingrained prejudices. Without anywhere else to turn, he recruits Rayon to be his sales rep.
Their partnership proves successful, and the combination of moneymaking and self-sustaining that ensues places Woodruff in daily proximity with Dallas’s gay community. It composes the majority of the Dallas Buyers Club, i.e. the HIV-positive population willing to flout FDA law and official medical advice to procure what they believe will help them survive. Woodruff, through the vehicle of his new Buyers Club business, learns these people are much like him: desperate in the face of death, inclined to kindness, and prey to their own weaknesses. His prejudice erodes daily under the mounting evidence that Scout Finch’s timeless observation is true: “there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”
When the FDA cracks down on the Dallas Buyers Club’s under-the-table operation and its members are barred from obtaining their immunological boosters, Woodruff’s façade—that moneymaking is still his primary motivation—shatters. Rayon, now Woodruff’s valued friend, dies, and his anger with the government’s nonsensical regulation and apparent apathy towards the mostly gay HIV-AIDS community transforms the Buyers Club from a business to a crusade. Woodruff, on the implicit behalf of his HIV-AIDS customers, sues the government for the right to medicate himself and fight against his impending death however he likes.
The heart of Woodruff’s story closes with the result of his lawsuit. He loses to the FDA, but upon returning to his home in Dallas receives an ovation from friends in the Buyers Club, who have gathered to congratulate his efforts. Woodruff, homophobe-turned-profiteer-turned-ally, here asks of us an uncomfortable question: What prevents our acceptance of the Other? Why does it take death to illuminate the ignorance of our prejudices?