Often in discussions of film, there are those inevitable phrases like, ‘of the moment’ or ‘ahead of its time.’ Those films with the ‘of-the-moment’ topicality typically come with a built-in expiration date. Those that are lauded as ‘ahead of their time’ face the additional scrutiny when it comes to future assessment. But, what about those films that are behind their time? I’m not talking about films like Far From Heaven or Drive, which use the past to illustrate the largely untapped power of contemporary filmmaking. I’m referring to those films that are so hopelessly out of date, they are practically historical oddities by the time they are dumped into cinemas. The 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer is one such film. Dallas Buyers Club, a 2013 film and awards bait equivalent of a fart app, is another.
Dallas Buyers Club, the purported true story of Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), a man who was diagnosed with AIDS in1985, and give only 30 days to live. Through the use of unauthorized, experimental drugs he prolonged his life another seven years, and in that time he founded ‘The Dallas Buyers Club,’ a network to smuggle in the aforementioned drugs and supplements to give to those with AIDS who couldn’t afford the alternative treatment, AZT. The film paints Woodroof as a racist, homophobic, misogynistic rodeo rider, who is all about substance abuse and casual sex. Following his diagnosis, practically overnight, he becomes the founder of DBC and starts challenge the US Food and Drug Administration. There is also some other stuff involving HIV-infected transgender woman (Jared Leto) and a doctor woman (Jennifer Garner), who’s noticeable traits are that she is a doctor and a woman, but that will be discussed in due time.
Watching the film, the first word that comes to mind wasn’t ‘offensive’ (although it is certainly that) or ‘grotesque’ (also apt), but ‘inexplicable.’ Inexplicable, first and foremost, because the film, made 20 years after Philadelphia, manages the almost impressive feat of being more regressive in its depiction AIDS than that film. Now, Philadelphia is a film I confess to liking, but it carries a lot of baggage. It was the first ‘mainstream’ film about AIDS, and as such, the film’s sanitized approach to the topic (it’s tragic, but never messy, and the queerness of Tom Hanks’ character is essentially nonexistent). But, it was 1993. It must be noted that films, like the TV single drama An Early Frost and indie flicks like Longtime Companion, had already explored AIDS, but Philadelphia reached the widest audience, with good, albeit earnest and occasionally mawkish, intentions. It was a message film, after all. In sharp comparison, Dallas Buyers Club is even more clueless about its subject, both AIDS and Ron Woodroof, and to see such nonsense on the screen 20 years after Philadelphia is bewildering, infuriating, and depressing. In short, it’s a message film without a message: a mean-spirited, cynical, saccharine exercise in Oscar bait. The approach worked, seeing that the film scored Academy Awards for Best Actor, Supporting Actor, and Makeup, in addition to a nod for Best Picture.
Of all the film’s failings, and they are myriad, the script is without question its most egregious fault. Dallas Buyers Club is a ‘message film,’ so it’s primary purpose is to enlighten the viewers. Right out of the gate, I’m reminded of what Harold Pinter, the celebrated British screenwriter and playwright, said in his speech at the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol, in 1962:
‘Beware of the writer who puts forward his concern for you to embrace, who leaves you in no doubt of his worthiness, his usefulness, his altruism, who declares that his heart is in the right place, and ensures that it can be seen in full view, a pulsating mass where his characters ought to be.’
A wise bit of advice, and one more audience members, particularly Academy voters, should have heeded to. But they didn’t, the film was a success, and I press on.
The film, working from Bortnen and Wallack’s shrill, tone-deaf, inexplicably Oscar-nominated screenplay, is rife with historical inaccuracies. Since its release, there has been ample discussion about the film and its portrait of Ron, his activities, and medical treatments and attitudes at the time. Back in 2002 (the film had been in development hell for years, a warning sign if there was ever one), Borten was interviewed about his screenplay and said about Woodroof: he was ‘as racist and homophobic as they come.’ Time for a little backstory: Borten scored this interview in 1992, shortly before Woodroof died. In press statements, the film has been described as adhering to that interview, along with Ron’s ‘journals.’ Vagueness likely intended, but even then, it doesn’t quite coincide with reports from other people who knew Ron. In the Telegraph article, Bill Minutaglio, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News’ Sunday Magazine, said, ‘He didn’t express any animosity to gay customers or the gay community…. He didn’t express any homophobia that I can remember, and if he had I’m almost certain I’d have put it in my story.’ Similarly, Woodroof’s own doctor, Steven Pounder said, ‘I never thought of him as straight in the least. His wife [Brenda] told me he was bisexual. I’ve seen the movie with her. I’ve had dinner with her, and she said he was never embarrassed about his bisexuality; Ron felt comfortable with who he was.’
Now, that sounds a bit different from Borten’s assertion that Wodroof was, ‘as racist and homophobic’ as they come. Borten was adamant that’s who Woodroof was, but it probably would have helped if he had done some outside research. I mean, he has supposedly been working on the since the early 90s, and later Wallack was brought aboard to help with ‘research.’ Was Woodroof actually a racist homophobe, or were the screenwriters so adamant in telling their story through the guise of a real person? It’s a question that merits its own film. Given the likelihood that Ron was bisexual, changing him to a straight homophobe is basically akin to pissing on his grave. I understand taking liberties when it comes to biopics, but to remove such an integral part of the man’s identity, particular when that facet (sexuality) shares a lot of overlap with the topic at hand (AIDS), it’s a bit much and as consequence, is insulting to both queer and straight audiences.
How the film is insulting to queer audiences is fairly self-explanatory, but how it insults the straight audience is far more subtle. Ron, the straight, white, racist homophobe, is meant to be the audience avatar. The presumably straight audience (I’m hard pressed to find anything that may appeal to queer audiences, but to each their own) follows Ron on his journey to… what exactly? The film is so lacking in insight, Ron never appears to change much in his attitudes or beliefs. But more on that in a bit. What is insulting to the straight audience members is the assumption, on part of the filmmakers, that only a homophobe can appeal to them when it comes to a ‘queer topic.’ Instead of trusting that, in 2013, straight audiences may be a bit more plugged in to queer issues (marriage equality being the most obvious example) and could ostensibly accept a queer leading character in a film about a topic still largely associated with queer people, particularly queer men, Dallas Buyers Club believes the only way to approach the AIDS epidemic is through the eyes of a racist homophobe. Perhaps not the best vote of confidence on part of the screenwriters and director, Jean-Marc Vallée, but given that Borten finished screenplay and sold it in 1996, it’s a fairly clear sign the man is still trapped in the naivete of the 90s. The world of film, and it’s exploration of queer sexuality and subjects like AIDS, has grown quite a bit in that time; Borten, and Wallack, have stubbornly remained small.
But that’s just the ideology of the film, so what about the film itself? Not only does Dallas Buyers Club severely lack interest and insight in its characters, it is so clumsily made and plotted that there is no dramatic tension or any real area of interest. The film introduces Ron as a racist homophobic rodeo rider, with a sweet tooth for booze, drugs, casual sex, and spouting off bigoted nonsense. Early on, he collapses, and instead of mercifully dying in his filthy trailer, he is brought to a hospital, where he is diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live. Ron scoffs at this assessment, but finds his health rapidly deteriorating. When word gets out about his status, he is fired from his job as an electrician, shunned by his friends, and driven from his trailer park. Seemingly overnight, he understands he contracted the disease from a strung out prostitute, which includes a flashback scene of the two having sex. The woman is so disheveled and covered in track marks and bruises, the filmmakers might as well have instructed the theatre ushers to scream into megaphones, ‘SHE HAS AIDS! LOOK AT WHAT A DISEASE-RIDDEN WHORE SHE IS!’ Anyway, Ron begins taking AZT back when it was in its more experimental stages, but finds his health still worsening (another egregious error on part of the film is its suggestion that AZT, while dangerous in high doses, is completely useless. It would later prove to be an important part in the cocktail of drugs needs to help treat HIV and AIDS. Unsurprisingly, the filmmakers didn’t bother to include this information, even during the cards at the end of the film). So, on a trip to Mexico, he finds an American doctor who had lost his license, but suggests a blend of vitamins for his health, after oh so helpfully calling AZT ‘pure poison.’
Around this point, the film seems to grow tired of exploring Ron’s HIV status and subsequent ostracism, and launches into a generic ‘man-against-the-crowd’ film, joining the esteemed company of films like Road House and Godzilla 2000, although it isn’t quite to the same caliber of those films. Following his unfortunate rise into better health, Ron begins a smuggling operation know as the ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ where he, along with the help of a friendly HIV-positive trans woman, Rayon, begin sneaking in all those drugs and vitamins the evil squares at the FDA haven’t approved (those bastards!). But, wouldn’t you know it, the FDA keeps trying to shut down Ron’s whole operation. In the end, Ron gets to meet, face-to-face, with the FDA meanies, and while he doesn’t convince them to allow him to continue his smuggling operation, he comes back to the DBC headquarters, where he is met with a thunderous round of applause.
Now, please excuse me while I go retch forever.
Everything about this film’s plot makes absolutely no sense. The idea of ‘the bigot who learns a lesson by seeing how other people are suffering’ is not my favorite type of film, but it has produced thought-provoking classics like Schindler’s List. However, a film like Schindler’s List actually bothered with providing insight into its characters, something that is nonexistent in DBC. Ron is presented as such an ardent bigot in the beginning of the film, but there are no scenes that explore his bigotry or whether his feelings have changed following his work with a largely queer clientele. His ‘helpfulness’ is rooted solely in trying to make money of those in need of medicine. His attitude and personality is so repulsive, it’s similarly astonishing that anyone, other than other trailer trash bigots, would tolerate his company for more than five minutes. The film can’t even be bothered to throw in a hackneyed ‘redemption’ scene; it would have been stupid yes, but it would also have gone a long way to explain why the other characters continue to put up with him instead of avoiding him like poison sumac. Instead, even after the DBC is up and running, he is still a bigoted asshole, dropping lines like calling the ACT UP group, ‘some f*gs in New York.’ Had the supporting characters come to their senses, they would have all avoided Ron, found another smuggler to help, and the film would have been over. Alas, it was cruelly not to be.
The worst thing is, with insight, the film could have been an interesting tale of how a person’s hard-set bigotry changes when they are placed under circumstances where they are forced into interact with those they despise. Conversely, the film’s sour, mean-spirited note could have made a great, darkly comedic satire: an anti-message film, one that skewers all the cliches of the genre by pushing them to absurd new heights. The film, shockingly doesn’t do this, giving it a ridiculous nature that is simultaneously grating and baffling.
Given the film’s wreck of a screenplay, it’s not terribly surprising that Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner (who now has a project on her CV more embarrassing than Elektra) try their best but have absolutely nothing. In his allegedly Oscar-worthy performance, McConaughey lost a massive amount of weight and spends the majority of the film scowling. He’s good at it, but I guess I like performances with a bit more depth and nuance. Then again, Daniel Day Lewis or Michael Fassbender couldn’t bring this material to life, so expecting the beloved star of Fool’s Gold and Failure to Launch to do so is perhaps a bit unreasonable. ‘Tis a pity, but McConaughey shouldn’t feel bad; his work in Killer Joe and Magic Mike was excellent.
In a far more maudlin and embarrassing performance, Jared Leto sinks his teeth into Rayon, the Magical AIDS Trans Fairy, sorry, beautiful creature (according to Leto’s moving Academy Award acceptance speech). Rayon, a flighty, damaged, drug-abusing HIV positive Trans woman is such an egregious cliché, it barely feels worth the keystrokes to describe just everything that is wrong with his character. Rayon has a heart of gold and superhuman tolerance for Ron’s bigoted, oafish behavior. She’s a woman with a Barbara Streisand song in her heart and a big Oscar moment where she gets to say, ‘One of these days, I’mma be pretty.’ Leto is a talented actor, but his work here, along with his similarly awful performance in Chapter 27, is a sign that maybe he should avoid going for the incredibly earnest roles.
In the film’s most thankless role, Jennifer Garner stars as Doctor Lady, the female doctor who helps Ron (when necessary) and functions as the quasi-love interest when the script needs her to. I’d write more, but in keeping with the spirit of the film, I’ll leave it at that.
So, what does all this leave us? An ugly, mean-spirited piece of nonsense; the most grotesque piece of Oscar-bait since The Reader. The film knows nothing about the AIDS Epidemic, and even less about those who fought for those for safe drugs. But readers of this post should not be alarmed; there are plenty of great films about AIDS. Gia, And the Band Played On, and for a subversive twist, the Gregg Araki film, The Living End, all offer for more complex, complicated looks at the disease and the people it affected. For a pair of heartbreaking, informative documentaries, I suggest We Were Here and How to Survive a Plague.
I’m not sure what is the cinematic equivalent to Truvada, but after watching Dallas Buyers Club, I could go for a fist of it.