Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
It’s been a while since Hollywood really tackled the AIDS crisis and the prejudices associated with it. Thanks to better understanding and tolerance, and a rise in life-extending drug treatments, AIDS is rarely stigmatized today as it once was, as a death sentence, as a gay disease. It’s faded into the back of most people’s minds. It’s been twenty years since Philadelphia and Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance. Has it been too long? The drama Dallas Buyers Club returns to the early years of the AIDS crisis and the ignorance of the age, illuminating a lesser known true story about one of the most unlikely activists to emerge.
In 1985, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a Texas electrician and part-time rodeo bull rider. He’s drinking, snorting cocaine, and sleeping with every woman he lays eyes on. Then one day he collapses and wakes up in the hospital. He’s told he has contracted HIV/AIDS and likely only has 30 days left to live. Ron is aghast, instantly defensive, declaring, “I ain’t no faggot.” Rather than wallow, he fights to live as long as he can, refusing to be part of a hospital drug treatment for AZT unless they can tell him, definitively, he’s getting the actual drug and not the placebo. Ron travels to Mexico and finds a sympathetic doctor with alternative treatments involving vitamins and other natural drugs, none of them illegal, just unapproved by the FDA. Ron returns to the States and runs into trouble trying to sell his wares to the afflicted gay community. Raylon (Jared Leto), a kindly transvestite suffering from AIDS, agrees to help Ron make inroads, for a percentage of the sales. Ron and his unlikely business partner skirt legal loopholes to sell “memberships” into the titular Dallas Buyers Club. With monthly dues, every member gets a dose of attentive medicine, and it’s having remarkable results.
The bulk of the attention Dallas Buyers Club has received is from the transformative performances of its two lead male actors, and they are exceptional. McConaughey (Mud) begins as the sort of character we’ve seen before, the swaggering cowboy who’s a natural ladies’ man, but as his life quickly falls apart and his circle of friends turn on him in gay panic and ignorance, Ron is pushed to the brink. McConaughey’s weight loss, which garnered plenty of ink in tabloids last year, is startling and instantly echoes his character’s dire state. Likewise, when you see a late scene of Leto (Lord of War), his frame is so gaunt, so frail, and so evocative of the few remaining moments these men have left to them. It’s no stunt or gimmick because their performances, even without the weight loss, are enormously affecting and powerful. Both men project a blustery confidence they themselves occasionally buy into, but both men are, naturally, scared witless, fumbling, scrambling against the clock. McConaughey is the strong face, the wheeler-dealer who has to use his live-wire charm and bag of tricks to get the meds. As roadblock after roadblock is thrown his way, we readily watch the toll is takes on Ron, the heaviness of his burden that becomes more about people than money. Leto is the conscience of the film and as he shrinks away, you can’t help but feel the inescapable tragedy. Leto will break your heart. I fully expect both men not only to be nominated for Oscars but likely to be favorites to win.
Despite the strength of those two outstanding performances, the film itself doesn’t measure up in a disappointing number of ways. The script by Craig Borten and Melissa Walleck misses far too many opportunities to round out the characters and the central conflict. The second half of Dallas Buyers Club feels a tad rudderless, and this is mostly because of a general sense of sameness in Ron’s conflicts. He butts heads with the FDA, finds a loophole, keeps going. This pattern repeats but it never escalates until the very end. As a result, the film feels like it’s treading water when it shouldn’t be. The portrayal of the FDA and other antagonists is decidedly one-note, almost to a ghoulishly degree. The movie sets up the piñata of Big Business/Pharma to take easy whacks at a faceless, money-driven entity that put profits before human lives. I get it, but it’s too easy and a movie that gropes for emotional depth should not have to stoop to caricatures of bureaucratic evil. The truth of the matter is that there was plenty of legal intransigence and feet dragging when it came to the response to AIDS, and that’s why it feels almost callously wrong for Dallas Buyers Club to reduce this dramatic point in history, where 95% of people who contracted HIV/AIDS had a month left to live, to an us vs. them/slobs vs. snobs underdog tale. That reductive condensing is a disservice to the real people but also a greater dramatic story at heart here.
I’d also like to note that the characters themselves are lacking. They held my interest, certainly, but what can I say about them? What moments revealed nuance or progression? The character arcs are dramatic with a capital D: homophobic Texas good ole’ boy becomes unlikely AIDS activist and friend to gays. The parameters are clearly mapped out, the start and the finish, but what’s lacking is substantive growth that I can acknowledge onscreen. Beyond the ongoing presence of Raylon, the movie doesn’t provide enough evidence for me to move Ron from homophobe to activist. I think this is due to the script meeting the basic requirements of what it thinks are the big signposts along Ron’s personal journey. So we get a scenario such as Ron refusing to enter a gay bar, then cautiously entering, then feeling comfortable around gay people. I don’t need people to trip over soapboxes to blurt out their inner feelings, their changing perspectives, but there has to be more than what’s presented in the interest of time and narrative cohesion. Likewise, Raylon is portrayed as saintly, your prototypical movie gay man with flamboyance and attitude, and he is certainly charming, but much like the main character in 12 Years a Slave, Raylon is more tragic martyr than fully-realized character. His service to the script is to push Ron forward on his own humanizing arc, and I’ve already stated my problems with that. The remaining characters are underwritten, with the unfeeling Dr. Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) served up as a stooge. Except he’s trying to get a sample size to test a drug’s viability, the same process with all medicine. Yet because he’s looking at the big picture, and lacks bedside manner, he’s the enemy to harrumph. Jennifer Garner’s character is more an exposition spout than person.
Weirdly, the movie drifts into an extended subplot, almost a secondary antagonist after the FDA, against the preliminary AZT drug treatment. This was the first major drug produced to combat HIV/AIDS. It had major backing with huge pharmaceutical industries. Opposition to the conventional norm of the time (AZT is our only medical hope) provides a snug storyline to garner our rooting interest in Ron, but this fight seems too impersonal and one-sided. We’re given reams of stats on the effects of AZT on AIDS patients, presenting a picture that AZT breaks down the patient’s immune system. Dallas Buyer’s Club becomes a sermon against AZT. The movie doesn’t have to be apolitical but it needs to mask its sermonizing or at least be more passionate about its case. Then in the end credits we’re served a short post-script saying that a low-dose AZT, in combination with other drugs, saved millions of lives. After hearing two hours of how terrible and stupid AZT is for treatment, it’s a surprising endnote. Does that justify the doctors that the film so easily vilified?
Ultimately a good film worth watching, I can’t help but continue finding problems as I reflect upon my Dallas Buyers Club experience. If it wasn’t for the excellent acting onscreen, I would have noticed the flaws of Dallas Buyers Club even earlier, but strong acting has a way of being a soothing balm with the deficiencies in a film. The narrative, with easy one-note villains and a runaround of repetitive conflicts, needs more development to match the caliber of performances of McConaughey and Leto. Both men give it their all, breaking your heart in the process, and their performances are even more commendable and impressive when you realize that the film’s characterization is wanting. I feel like the complexity of this volatile time, and Ron Woodroof as a human being and unlikely activist, have been simplified into a rah-rah mass appeal underdog vehicle. I think this does a disservice to the characters and their personal drama, and I wish the filmmakers presented them better as well-rounded individuals rather than tools for the re-education of Ron Woodroof. There’s enough good here to balance out the could-have-been-better, chiefly the power of the central male performances. However, if you want a passionate account of early AIDS activism, I suggest checking out last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague.
Nate’s Grade: B