This piece was originally published during the Toronto Film Festival. “Dallas Buyers Club” has now been nominated for 6 Academy Awards including best picture.
I’ll admit that I walked into “Dallas Buyers Club” looking for trouble. How couldn’t I? One of a small handful of American cinematic representations about the onset of the AIDS in the 1980s, any film that tries to tackle a controversially neglected, remarkably devastating chapter in history is set to be challenged when it comes to how it represents it. Especially when the people tackling it — and being heroized within it — do not embody the group of people who were most ravaged by AIDS.
The idea of someone directing a film that largely represents a demographic of people that they do not belong to is clearly no new notion (see “Brokeback Mountain,” “Philadelphia,” “The Color Purple,” “Django Unchained,” “Norma Rae” and “Thelma & Louise”). And in many of those cases, things worked out just fine (“Dallas Buyers Club” director Jean-Marc Vallée was an example of that himself with his fantastic 2005 gay coming-of-age story “C.R.A.Z.Y.”). But the immediate concern with “Dallas Buyers” wasn’t that it’s being directed by a straight white dude (not that I’d even let that concern me at this point anyway), but that it’s about a straight white dude.
In “Dallas Buyers Club,” the most powerful demographic in America is being used to portray a story about a devastating disease that has historically had very little to do with them, except when it came to the people ignoring, stigmatizing and inadvertently killing people with AIDS. Yes, it’s based on a true story and yes, there are indeed straight white men who have died from AIDS, and even more straight white men who have shown nothing but love and compassion for people affected by the disease. But since it’s been 20 years since the last major Hollywood film (“Philadelphia” came out in 1993) that dealt primarily about an epidemic that has killed over 650,000 in the United States (over half of them gay men), all I could say to myself going into the film’s first screening at the Toronto Film Festival was “this better just be a really, really good movie.” Unfortunately, it was not. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
“Dallas Buyers Club” wastes no time setting things up for us. It begins with images of cowboys and American flags at a Texas rodeo before introducing us to its alleged hero, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), who is having sex with two women under the rodeo’s stand. It’s the first of many, many times in the film when we are bombarded with images of female flesh, cowboy hats and various other symbols of macho Americana. Just in case it wasn’t already very, very clear that Woodroof is as straight and American as they come (it’s safe to relate to him, straight dudes!).
What’s also clear a few minutes later is that Woodroof is as homophobic as they come. With a newspaper headline announcing Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS on the table in a back room at the rodeo, he announces to his fellow cowboys: “You hear Rock Hudson was a cocksucker?” Oblivious to Woodroof is the fact that he too has AIDS, but he finds that out soon enough. Before the 10-minute mark of “Dallas Buyers Club,” he’s collapsed and taken to the hospital, where he wakes up to find two doctors (an evil one played by Denis O’Hare, and a saintly one played by Jennifer Garner) telling him he has “tested positive for HIV” (despite the fact that it’s explicitly noted that it is July 1985 at the time, ten months before “HIV” was ever used to describe the virus that causes AIDS).
“I ain’t no faggot motherfucker,” Woodroof responds to them when asked if he’s ever had homosexual relations. And thus begins the film’s core narrative, in which Woodroof — faced with a diagnosis of 30 days to live — fights for his life by heading to Mexico to find drugs not yet approved in America and bringing them back to Dallas to use himself and to sell to the largely gay demographic of people in town also suffering from the disease (selling memberships to a “buyer’s club” — an idea he rips off from AIDS activist group ACT UP in New York — to sell the drugs without breaking the rules).
I fully expected his evolution from this point forward would work toward making Woodroof becoming worthy of the heroic status the film is clearly giving him. That his intentions for selling the drugs would appear less selfish (at first he’s clearly doing it for the money, even refusing a poor young gay kid drugs because he doesn’t have the money) and that he himself would learn to love the gays and rid himself of his rampant homophobia. But by the film’s end, it’s not entirely clear that either evolution fully takes place. It also becomes increasingly clear that the film itself is offering a pretty questionable representation of the few actual queer characters it actually gives more than one line of dialogue.
The most prominent example of such is also the main catalyst for whatever progress Woodroof does make in reducing his homophobia: Rayon, a trans-female played by Jared Leto. Woodroof meets Rayon when they are sharing a hospital room, and reluctantly allows her (though the film consistently has other characters refer to Rayon as “him” or “he,” which is perhaps simply a sign of those times and not as questionable as it seems) to massage a cramp in his leg — the first sign of Woodroof’s changing tune. Then when Woodroof starts trying to sell drugs to the gay community and is repeatedly shut down, he goes to Rayon for help. Initially offering a 5% cut, Rayon gets him to up it to 25% after saying that she can take his homophobic insults, but not a shitty deal.
From that point forward, Rayon becomes Woodroof’s right-hand gal, helping him manage the buyers club and giving him an opportunity to actually get to know a queer person. The film gives us a scene that is obviously intended to express the resulting progress when the two are shopping in a grocery store and Woodroof — himself now stigmatized from the disease and in large part ousted from the social group he was a part of before his diagnosis — defends Rayon when one his former friends calls harasses her, demanding that he apologize and shake her hand. It all comes across a little too transparent, and by this point Woodroof’s acceptance of Rayon seems to be born out of desperation than out of compassion. She’s almost all he has left, and his own derogatory remarks — though now said with an underlying affection of sorts — continue.
Worse is the film’s depiction of Rayon herself. Part an issue of the film’s simplistic screenplay and part of Leto’s performance, Rayon rarely extends beyond caricature. We never find out much about her beyond her relationship to Woodroof, and though she has a boyfriend that is present in many of the film’s scenes, we never even find out his name. The one scene that gives us insight into Rayon’s life beyond Ron Woodroof is when she goes to her monstrous, wealthy father to beg for money. He passive aggressively thanks her for dressing like a man before muttering “god help me.” And Rayon’s response is either the film’s best or worst line, I can’t decide: “He already has. I have AIDS.”
The fact that Rayon gives all the money she gets from her father (through a truly humiliating context) to Woodroof as a thank you continues the film’s representation of her as weak. Why wouldn’t Rayon use that money to help herself? And why is Woodroof even worthy of such a gift? Because he learned to tolerate her? And successfully used her to help his own business venture get off the ground? “Dallas Buyers Club” consistently lionizes Ron Woodroof without really giving us a reason to feel like he deserves it. Rayon, meanwhile, is continuously victimized (a Hollywood tradition for queer characters, but silly me for thinking this would be an exception), largely through her inability to overcome a drug addiction that eventually leads to her death (the screenplay even gives Leto the line “I don’t want to die!” to hysterically mumble in its final scenes). Woodroof is clearly a drug addict too (not to mention an alcoholic and a sex addict), and also struggles with overcoming it. But “Dallas Buyers” portrays his struggle with much less judgement than Rayon’s, and ultimately blames her death on her drug addiction (explicitly via a line by the doctor played by Jennifer Garner — herself a problematic character I won’t even bother getting into).
In the end, Ron Woodroof also dies. But we learn about this in the film’s credits, and not onscreen. His death is suggested as an achievement in survival, given he outlasted his diagnosis by six years. He also ends his presence in the film off in typical heroic style, being cheered on by a group of nameless gays and lesbians when returns home from a (largely failed) legal battle in California against the FDA. But Ron Woodroof is not a hero. Ron Woodroof was just a guy that — like countless others at that time — got creative so that he could survive. It’s impressive, but is it really worthy of becoming one of just a handful of films that represent this harrowing time in American history? No, it never was. But worse is that “Dallas Buyers Club” is not a very good movie on top of that. With lazy and uninspired direction from Vallée and a cookie-cutter screenplay from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, “Dallas Buyers Club” completely fails to portray the magnitude of the situation at hand (having an anti-Reagan poster out of focus in the background isn’t going to cut it). And as a result, you don’t end up caring much about what’s up on that screen. Even if it never should have been up there to begin with.