Friday, January 31, 2014
Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club is the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texas electrician who in the 1980’s became an unlikely advocate for people with HIV and AIDS after his own diagnosis. Woodroof was an early user of the drug AZT, which he obtains by bribing a hospital employee, and so among the first to experience the toxic effects of high doses. After an encounter with an unlicensed doctor (Griffin Dunne) in Mexico, Woodroof begins an elaborate operation to import and sell unapproved HIV drugs from around the world. Once the FDA catches Woodroof at work the movie becomes a procedural, culminating with Woodroof’s unsuccessful attempt to challenge the FDA’s authority in federal court.
The reaction to Dallas Buyers Club has included a discussion about the film’s relationship to the truth of the real Ron Woodroof’s life. Director Jean-Marc Vallee and writers Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack have made their Woodroof a heterosexual, irascible, drinking and drugging American cowboy who when we first meet him is openly homophobic, though it seems Woodroof’s sexuality and his attitudes towards gays may have been not have been so clear-cut. There is a clear arc to the film’s Woodroof as a man who overcomes his own bigotry through his work and his friendship with a transgender woman named Rayon (Jared Leto). McConaughey and Leto, both likely to win Oscars, play their roles with a spiky humanity that for a while make the problematic parts of Dallas Buyers Club easy to forget about, but the problems are still there. Matthew McConaughey has been on a hot streak recently and deservedly so, but his performance here deserves the career-best acclaim it’s getting. The scenes of Woodroof jousting with a doctor (Jennifer Garner) and FDA officials are the film’s best moments; McConaughey is terrific at conveying his character’s native intelligence and doesn’t play his affection for Rayon for easy sentiment. I’m the right age to remember Jared Leto from My So-Called Life, but I haven’t paid much attention to him as an actor since then. Leto still has the vulnerability that he made his name on, but he’s a more confident actor now who’s not afraid to play Rayon as person as opposed to a symbol. That’s fortunate because the movie badly, badly wants Rayon to be that symbol.
It’s not only appropriate to set a film about AIDS in middle America, it’s overdue. The subject of the politics and misunderstandings that marred early AIDS research is one that cries out for dramatic treatment, to say nothing of the angry early activism of groups like ACT UP and Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Dallas Buyer’s Club has been in one stage of development or another as a film almost since Ron Woodroof died in 1992, and characters like Rayon were harder to find twenty years ago. That fact doesn’t excuse the script’s conception of the drug-addicted Rayon as existing solely to leaven and eventually overcome Ron’s biases. Rayon is introduced helping Ron get over a leg cramp in the hospital and eventually the two are partners, with Rayon able to go places in the gay community that Ron initially doesn’t want to. Two moments are especially egregious: Rayon, in male clothes, visits his estranged banker father when the Buyers Club needs money. Rayon tells his father he has AIDS and then apologizes. For what, exactly? The single worst scene in the film is Rayon’s speech to the mirror, which brings us perilously close to watching the Mississippi Burning of AIDS movies. The other LGBT characters in Dallas Buyers Club are only portrayed as customers, and most are onscreen less than the straight HIV positive woman with whom Woodroof hooks up in a bathroom. There is a predictable quality to Dallas Buyers Club that, despite the actors’ good work, gives it a safe quality that doesn’t rise to the level of stories that we’re owed about AIDS. As McConaughey and Leto receive their acclaim, it’s important to remember everyone for whom the drugs came too late.