BLOGS

Movies Without Pity

Dallas Buyers Club: What a Sell Out

by Ethan Alter November 1, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Dallas Buyers Club</i>: What a Sell Out

Let's get this out of the way right up front: Matthew McConaughey is absolutely guaranteed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club and seems the most likely candidate to nab the statue in the (hopefully unlikely) event that voters decide to pass over 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor. As Ron Woodroof, McConaughey delivers the kind of star turn that the Academy loves. Not only is his character 1) Based on a real person, who 2) Suffered from a serious illness (in this case, AIDS), but he also gets to play out the kind of redemptive character arc -- going from homophobic bigot to an outspoken activist for AIDS victims' rights -- that sends viewers out of the theater feeling uplifted rather than emotionally wrecked, as is the case with Ejiofor's devastating work. Best of all, he gets to suffer manfully while still retaining that classic McConaughey swagger, the thing that made him a star all those years ago in Dazed and Confused and gives crowd-pleasers like Magic Mike and The Lincoln Lawyer their extra charge.

So yes, McConaughey is quite good in Dallas Buyers Club. The movie itself, however, is deeply problematic, both on a dramatic and (for me, at least) ethical level. The early history of AIDS in America is a fascinating, troubling period that's been tackled in such absorbing books such as And the Band Played On and superior documentaries like How to Survive a Plague and We Were Here. It was an era marked by discrimination, misinformation and distrust on behalf of the sick and the dying, who justly felt ignored and abandoned by the medical community, not to mention the government at large. Dallas Buyers Club, which was written by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, opens in 1985, roughly four years into the epidemic when HIV and AIDS was still widely viewed as a "gay plague." That's certainly how red-meat eating, beer-drinking, skirt-chasing Ron thinks of it… whenever he thinks about anything beyond his own immediate pleasure, that is. But then a trip to the hospital following an on-the-job accident reveals that he's suffering low T-cell count and other immune deficiencies -- all of which indicate that he's also contracted HIV, either through his years of intravenous drug use or regular participation in unprotected sex.

Naturally, Ron's first reaction is shock and disbelief, feelings that are exacerbated when his friends and co-workers avoid him as if he's radioactive. Demanding nothing less than a total cure, he pays a hospital orderly a healthy sum to sneak him dosages of AZT -- then the leading HIV drug on the market, even as it was still undergoing clinical trials -- which he gobbles down like candy. When that fails to restore his health, he ends up in a Mexico hospital run by a no-longer-licensed physician, who instead prescribes a cocktail of vitamins and protein injections that his body responds to more effectively than the AZT. Even though these substances aren't illegal, they also aren't approved by the Food and Drug Administration and thus can't be purchased or sold in Texas or anywhere else in the U.S. Initially driven by dollar signs rather than the thought of helping people, Ron establishes a Dallas-based buyers club, where members pay a monthly fee in exchange for these unapproved treatments. It goes without saying, though, that through the process of establishing and running this club -- a job that makes him a target for regular, FDA-approved busts by state and federal law enforcement agencies -- Woodroof undergoes a profound shift in his attitude towards the men he previously dismissed as "queers," "queens" and any other derogatory name you might imagine.

Far more than the remedies they offered -- some of which were of dubious assistance -- the importance of these buyers clubs in the early years of the AIDS crisis was providing the disease's victims with a sense of community and togetherness, which stood in marked comparison to the impersonal assistance they might receive at hospitals and other medical institutions. A more thoughtful, ambitious version of Dallas Buyers Club perhaps would have taken that to heart and pursued an ensemble-driven approach that allowed audiences to experience all the different personalities that make up this specific community, as opposed to focusing so completely on a single individual. (In other words, making a movie closer in spirit to Robert Altman's Nashville than Martin Ritt's Norma Rae.)

In the finished product, the club's membership consists of largely anonymous individuals whose sole function seems to be -- within the context of the movie, anyway -- enabling Ron's personal transformation. As such, there's a whiff of exploitation at play here, no doubt unintentional exploitation, but exploitation all the same; in the movie's vaguely condescending version of events, it's a tragedy that these men died, but at least they died making McConaughey's Ron a better (heterosexual) man. This attitude is most keenly felt in the relationship between Woodroof and the one gay character who is awarded significant screentime, Rayon (Jared Leto), an AIDS-afflicted transsexual who Ron initially regards with horror, only to ultimately weep buckets for when the disease claims his life. Leto is quite moving in the role, but there's no escaping the fact that, as written, Rayon is this movie's Magical Queer figure (the gay relative of the Magical Negro trope), who is primarily on hand to teach the straight male character Important Life Lessons… lessons like 1) Don't be a hateful bigot and 2) Always bring flowers when you take that pretty doctor you've been eyeing (Jennifer Garner) out on a date.

Beyond its dramatic deficiencies, I was also bothered by the way Dallas Buyers Club reduces the complex relationship that existed between AIDS activist groups and the medical community in the 1980s to an easily digestible good vs. evil conflict. In this highly simplified account, AZT-peddling doctors and a draconian FDA (backed by that ever-popular boogeyman, Big Pharma) represent easily hissable villains, the Empire to Ron's own personal Rebel Alliance of upstart amateur pharmacists. Meanwhile, the only trustworthy docs are those who turn their backs on the establishment, like the unlicensed vitamin proponent who gives him the idea for the buyer's club and, eventually, Garner's Eve Saks, who gets to tell her colleagues off in a crowd-pleasing moment that will probably vault her into the awards race as well.

It's a dramatically convenient way of framing history that carries elements of truth (the medical establishment and the FDA did make a shameful number of mistakes following the initial outbreak of AIDS), but tidies up the motives, not to mention the successes and failures, of both camps. The movie would have you believe that the only source of innovation in AIDS-related treatments in the '80s were buyers clubs, largely because they didn't concern themselves with things like clinical trials and other regulations. Mostly left out of the film, though, are the alternative treatments that didn't work or that proved counter-productive due to a lack of research. A strong undercurrent of distrust in modern medicine -- particularly prescription medication -- can be felt throughout Dallas Buyers Club, which instead seems to place its faith instead in "all-natural" remedies like vitamin cocktails and outlaws like Ron Woodroof, whom the movie unabashedly heroicizes for acting like he knows better than any book-learning doctor how to treat his illness. (A piece of text over the closing credits half-heartedly acknowledges that AZT is successfully used today in AIDS treatments, albeit in smaller doses and in concert with other medications.) McConaughey delivers a fine performance in Dallas Buyers Club, but it's less impressive when you realize that the entire movie has been rigged in his favor.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

Keep up with Movies Without Pity on Facebook and Tumblr

Think you've got game? Prove it! Check out Games Without Pity, our new area featuring trivia, puzzle, card, strategy, action and word games -- all free to play and guaranteed to help pass the time until your next show starts.

Comments

SHARE THE SNARK

X

Get the most of your experience.
Share the Snark!

See content relevant to you based on what your friends are reading and watching.

Share your activity with your friends to Facebook's News Feed, Timeline and Ticker.

Stay in Control: Delete any item from your activity that you choose not to share.

MOST RECENT POSTS

BLOG ARCHIVES

Movies Without Pity

March 2014

16 ENTRIES

February 2014

22 ENTRIES

January 2014

21 ENTRIES

December 2013

25 ENTRIES

November 2013

21 ENTRIES

October 2013

26 ENTRIES

September 2013

16 ENTRIES

August 2013

22 ENTRIES

July 2013

22 ENTRIES

June 2013

21 ENTRIES

May 2013

22 ENTRIES

April 2013

19 ENTRIES

March 2013

28 ENTRIES

February 2013

16 ENTRIES

January 2013

16 ENTRIES

December 2012

21 ENTRIES

November 2012

19 ENTRIES

October 2012

20 ENTRIES

September 2012

19 ENTRIES

August 2012

19 ENTRIES

July 2012

17 ENTRIES

June 2012

24 ENTRIES

May 2012

21 ENTRIES

April 2012

22 ENTRIES

March 2012

26 ENTRIES

February 2012

25 ENTRIES

January 2012

25 ENTRIES

The Latest Activity On TwOP