Vince’s Note: At this point, I trust I no longer need to write introductions for Heather?
Matthew McConaughey Reaches for Oscar as “The Biggest Loser” in Dallas Buyers Club
Although billed as a movie about the heroes of the 1980s AIDS crisis, nearly every review of Dallas Buyers Club has focused on Matthew McConaughey’s far more heroic ability to beat the odds, defy the expectations, and go on a diet. Critics have debated whether McConaughey lost thirty or fifty pounds for the role (I say ten in the stomach and a disappointing twenty in the ass) but few have questioned the film’s representation of the epidemic. Most of the people who died from AIDS in the eighties were gay men, and many of the people who fought for help were also gay men (and some really hot lesbians). Seeking to soothe the nerves of anxious moviegoers, Dallas Buyers Club (dir. Jean-Marc Valee) tells a real-life story of the AIDS crisis from the point of view of a homophobe-with-a-heart-of-gold, Ron Woodruff (McConaughey). It’s reductive and exploitative, but McConaughey almost saves the day with a superior performance and a set of incandescent American Apparel calves.
Ron Woodruff is a tough Texas cowboy with an all-American love of unprotected sex with hookers when he’s given a diagnosis of HIV and told he has thirty days left to live. Seen as a gay disease, Ron at first resists his diagnosis but later realizes something is seriously wrong when he can’t get it up for his Thursday-night threesome (awww, Matthew!) Ron then decides he needs to take action, busts out a pair of lethal Warby Parker glasses, and heads over to the library to learn about his fate. He’s a redneck who reads microfiche, the film swoons, and then goes on to ask viewers to believe everything Ron stands for because well – it’s microfiche.
But Dallas Buyers Club is often very confused about AIDS, even though it tries really hard in a parent-at-PFLAG kind of way. Ron becomes a hero when he rejects a very expensive clinical trial of AZT and then smuggles in experimental drugs for commercial distribution through a “buyers club.” He’s joined by his so-earnest-its-unbearable-to-watch doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), in fighting big pharma and making Shel-Silverstein analogies about flowers. The film wants you to believe that Ron’s a brazen hero, but AZT was one of the few drugs that worked and there were other buyers clubs that existed then that didn’t charge fees to its very sick members. The Dallas buyers club did do incredible work and you can’t blame a (handsome) dying man in need of cash. But the film wants you to give a sticker every time Ron demonstrates an entry-level Girl Scout amount of compassion towards a dying gay man. Whereas other films about the epidemic like David France’s How to Survive a Plague (2012) champion the stories of gay activists fighting literally for their lives, Dallas Buyers Club feels more like a coming-of-age tale about a big bigot who, through the magic of capitalism, transforms into a beautiful less-of-a-bigot. Viewers beware: there’s a butterfly metaphor.
Nowhere does the film fumble more than in its depiction of Rayon (Jared Leto), Ron’s transgender business partner. Rayon suffers from a number of ailments: not only HIV and a drug addiction, but a perpetual run in her tights, a name that would have been rejected even by the writers of Rent, and a drama-club-student’s attempt at a Blanche Dubois Southern accent. Like so many transgender people depicted in films before her (The Crying Game, Boys Don’t Cry), Rayon’s life is shaped entirely by tragedy. Whereas Ron gets to ride a bull again and even goes out on a steak date (!), Rayon is confined to tears and a deeply painful pink bathrobe. Although that sounds like so many of my Friday nights, it’s a sad story nonetheless, and I’d like to see a film that features a transgender person doing well. Jesus Christ, you think, will someone take this girl out on a date to The Cheesecake Factory or something?
No films are ever saved by “good acting,” but when it’s Matthew McConaughey in a remixed version of a Time to Kill accent, it helps. It feels real when McConaughey first starts to break down because of his illness, and even more authentic when he begins to build his life again through the buyers club. Unfortunately, he’s caught in a movie of bad accents and boobs, stuck in a savior story masquerading as meaningful social drama. At the end of Dallas Buyers Club, you’re more inspired to sit Matthew down and feed him a warm plate of trans fats than you are to take action about gay rights or HIV. Not every film needs to feature Ellen in a cape, but at least give us better bathrobes.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. She was recently featured in Yeni Sleidi’s “Lesbians React to Sex Scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color.” You can see more of Heather’s work at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyv2ZgX35Ws and you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org.