Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
By Roderick Heath
As someone who was a child in the 1980s, the menace of the AIDS epidemic is engraved on my formative years. The spectre of the disease’s infiltration into world consciousness and the widespread confusion it created was like an insidious flipside to the decade’s pervasive nuclear angst, like a choice of destruction from without or within. As an Australian, I readily recall the infamous “grim reaper” ad designed to foster alarm and caution in the general populace. The effect of this campaign was to midly traumatise kids my age, but it hit the mark in instantly making everyone aware of the nature of the problem, as part of effective government programme of action.
Dallas Buyers Club harkens back to those tumultuous, scary days with a different reference point: the film revolves around a straight character’s battle with the disease in the context of the Reagan era in the U.S., where, in marked contrast to the swift and effective reaction by the Australian authorities, many felt that viewing AIDS as a specifically gay problem was being propagated by the attitude of a conservative government—the anger of the time still smoulders in the American LGBT community. Dallas Buyers Club recounts the fascinating true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a self-stereotyped Texan he-man with a love of rodeo riding, sex, and intoxicating substances. Introduced at the outset having a threesome with a pair of rodeo groupies in a bull holding cage whilst waiting for a different kind of ride, Ron is a professional electrician. He consumes sensations with ravening hunger, a Falstaffian figure, albeit one who, far from being garrulously corpulent, has mysteriously been worn to a stalk instead.
Ron is diagnosed with full-blown AIDS when he lands in hospital after getting electrocuted on the job, and is given 30 days to live, with the suggestion that he go home and put his affairs in order. Ron rejects the diagnosis in disbelief, but when he learns it’s entirely possible to have contracted it through unprotected sex and intravenous drug use, he puts himself in the hands of Drs. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). He’s made furious when he learns he’s going to be included in a research study of the effects of the experimental drug AZT, but won’t know if he’s receiving the drug or a placebo. Instead, he starts paying bribes to a hospital orderly to smuggle him doses of the drug. As his 30 days run out and his supply is suddenly cut off by tightening security, he contemplates suicide, but instead follows the orderly’s suggestion to go south of the border in search of a banished gringo doctor named Vass (Griffin Dunne).
Vass introduces him to other drugs and supplements he believes are less corrosive than AZT. Ron, seeing not just hope for himself but also a major opportunity, fills the trunk of his car with this contraband, bluffing his way past border cops by posing as a cancer-stricken priest who is bringing a stash in for his own use. He sets up a business he dubs the Dallas Buyers Club, a technical subversion of FDA regulations that allows him to give foreign, unapproved drugs to members who pay a $400 monthly fee as club members. Aiding him in the business is a would-be trans woman, Rayon (Jared Leto), whom Ron met in hospital as a fellow AZT trial recipient. In spite of Ron’s brusque homophobia, he and Rayon form a working relationship as Rayon knows many potential members for the club.
Ron, used to being a good old boy at the dead centre of macho Texan culture, is suddenly faced with cruel ostracism by friends, neighbours, and his landlord: finding himself locked out of his trailer home, Ron blasts off the lock, removes his money and a painting done by his mother, and struts away with his signature rejoinder: “Y’all go fuck yerselves.” This experience primes Ron, however reluctantly, to form a bond with Rayon and other sufferers, and get over himself enough to venture into a gay bar on the hunt for new customers. Humiliated by an encounter with a gang of his pals, Ron takes revenge when, in the company of Rayon, he meets one former friend, T.J. (Kevin Rankin), and compels T.J. to shake Rayon’s hand. The only one of Ron’s old buddies who sticks by him is Dallas beat cop Tucker (Steve Zahn), one of that variety of character often found in films who turn up when required to by the plot.
Ron is the sort of character any actor might consider donating organs to get their hands on, and McConaughey brings him roaring to impudent, individual life. McConaughey’s severe weight loss, dropping all the buffness he showed off in Magic Mike (2012) to facilitate his performance, is a fairly familiar act of actor masochism in the hunt for gold statuary. But it’s backed up here with an expert sense of physical performance, as McConaughey nails the gait of a man not used to his current weight because he’s lost so much of it in a short time, as well as the many fluctuations of Ron’s mental and physical condition, from outrageous drunkenness to fiery combativeness. McConaughey cunningly doesn’t play Ron as cool as Ron thinks he is, presenting a scrappy survivor, glimpsed early on running from guys who want to beat him up, who might once have been a golden boy like McConaughey’s own younger self, but who now gets along on raw nerve and charm. This is some fine film acting, using the body as malleable canvas, but not neglecting other gifts: a great deal of the entertainment value of the film is sourced in Woodroof’s dexterity and inspiration in getting around the rules and his mysteriously protean abilities, able to demolish stereotypes by using them to his own ends.
Dallas Buyers Club, as a film, is by far at its best in the first half when concentrating on Ron’s dizzied journey from the centre to the fringe of his culture, and the confrontation with mortality by such a rudely sensual man, who deals with imminent death in the same way he deals with everything else, with fuck-you attitude, wheeler-dealer conceit, and spidery wit. He prays at one point for a chance to catch his breath when faced with scarcely a month of life ahead of him, but then hits the ground running and finds this keeps him alive. His unpleasant side, bound up with his culturally enabled (and indeed culturally dictated) dislike of queers, is eventually found to stem from the same source as his best quality, his gleeful skill and pith in a fight. He’s a guy who loves contention and defining himself in combative situations, so there’s no real change involved in his move from aiming nasty, gay-baiting barbs at Rayon to suddenly defending his honour. He soon finds that side of his nature more than occupied by his ongoing combat with experts and official gatekeepers like Sevard and FDA honcho Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill), who try to shut down the club for reasons Ron and, eventually, Eve come to believe are bound up in the cosy relationship the American medical establishment and bureaucracy have with Big Pharma. Warned by Vass that AZT is highly toxic, Ron upbraids Sevard and others for continuing to use it. Faced with having his stock impounded and government audits, Ron refuses to stop propagating his own regimen, flying around the world in search of new supplies and treatments, and expanding his variety of guises to bring them back.
Despite its qualities as a character portrait and actor’s showcase in its early phases, Dallas Buyers Club proves a much less compelling experience than it initially promises to be. The director is Jean-Marc Vallée, who last took a tilt at prestige cinema with The Young Victoria (2009), a very ordinary costume biopic jazzed up with some showy, but pointless directorial technique. Vallée tackles this subject more aptly with that energy, trying to shape the film via arty visual and aural flourishes designed give the audience the same slightly woozy, breathless, simultaneously spacy and intense mental landscape Ron has. Vallée, who also edited the film, uses Godardian jump cuts, hazy and semi-abstract point-of-view shots, and manipulated sound similar to an effect used many times on the TV show Breaking Bad where someone zones out with a faint whistling sound that deadens everything else. The opening scene with Ron’s sexual escapade in the bullpen is a strong example, as Vallée suggests intensely corporeal erotic action in hyper-contrast to the bullriding beyond the grating, conjoining the sexual act and the rider’s fall, a miniature portrait of the life cycle itself. It’s a great start, one with a purposeful technique and artfulness Vallée can’t sustain in part because both the uneasy relationship of the messiness of life and the programmatic script forestall it. Vallée’s directing gives a veneer of edginess to a film that’s actually deeply conventional.
The film’s second half begins to devolve into a series of loosely connected scenes, particularly in making room for Ron’s relationship with Eve. McConaughey and Garner, in other circumstances, could be a great onscreen couple, but the necessarily platonic stuff here doesn’t feel anything but fake, especially considering that Eve is present in the painfully clichéd role of the company girl charmed by the ragged but loveable rogue who slowly changes allegiances. This climaxes, embarrassingly, when Eve stomps out of a meeting with hospital chiefs who try to make her resign, tossing Ron’s vulgar preferred farewell over her shoulder. Ha ha, she’s a goody-goody doctor, and she just swore like a redneck, ha ha.
Rayon is a character by now as clichéd as Eve, the fabulous, spunky, doomed queen sidekick: he’s practically interchangeable with figures like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Lola in Kinky Boots (2005) whilst also recalling the Blanche Dubois school of transgender tragic. Rayon’s relationship with his boyfriend (Bradford Cox) isn’t given any study, nor is said boyfriend even given a name: you just see the two constantly frolicking together. Leto’s smug and artificial performance doesn’t help bring any new depth to this character, though there is one good touch to it, insofar as that early in the film Leto offers an androgynously beautiful façade that gets seedier as the film goes along. This accords with perhaps the film’s slyest joke, albeit one that’s not that well developed, as Ron becomes the more stereotypically gay member of their partnership. Ron offers a nurturing influence, dictating a healthy lifestyle and giving Rayon a hard time for his increasing drug use as Rayon copes with existential dread with mood-altering substances, whilst Ron deals with his in his combative labours.
Meanwhile, Vallée and writers Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten try to wring the material for pathos whilst dancing around the painful business at the centre of the tale. In offering Woodroof as an antihero, Dallas Buyers Club seeks to shake up our perception of virtue, joining an increasing body of prestige pics like Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) in which the protagonists are figures of unruly sexual and sensatory appetites. At the same time, the film falls back on some very old tricks of the crusader biopic, offering convenient representatives of official villainy as arch as those found in examples of the genre from the 1930s, like The House of Rothschild (1934) and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)—which is, I admit, one of the more fun things about those movies, but not necessarily a good reason why that sort of thing is needed in a serious-minded movie now. Dallas Buyers Club plays its politics with fascinatingly equivocal precision, presenting a rootin’-tootin’ good old boy as the messiah of the gays whilst taking on the big boys in a film that plays equally on liberal dislike of corporate-influenced governance and Tea Party loathing of federal institutions, in spite of the apparently much more complex history behind this tale, and generally ignoring the wider picture of the AIDS epidemic (I do like that the news broadcasts used to give background information seem to be real, as fake news bulletins and newsreels used for exposition are one of my singular pet peeves). Not that there’s anything new about distorting history for the sake of a good story, but that’s just the problem: there’s nothing new here, an interesting true story reprocessed into a stock star vehicle, vague and platitudinous in its actual social perspective.
If Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t sink to the level of dread offered by the likes of The Help (2011) in jerking off the audience for sharing the right opinion about period social injustices, it’s because Vallée and his cast sustain their ornery energy. The film offers seemingly casual, but sharply realised moments of interaction and odd-couple humour, as Ron and Rayon’s relationship finds spiky, fraternal stability, for example, Rayon teasing Ron by sticking up pictures of his own favoured love object, Marc Bolan, amongst Ron’s girly pics. There’s tang to the film’s evocation of life in the byways of Dallas, particularly the motel the becomes the base of operations for the club, which Ron unapologetically runs as both public good and capitalist enterprise to rows of needy, would-be club members queued up outside. One neat sequence of Ron’s misadventures depicts him going to Japan, engaging in difficult and costly deal-making, returning unscathed into the U.S. by pretending to be a physician raving on a huge ’80s mobile phone, but then being done in by the very drug he’s just brought back when he tries it to relieve his symptoms in the airport bathroom and gives himself a heart attack.
The film avoids realistic depiction of death by AIDS to a weird and discomforting degree. Everyone goes along fine until Rayon suddenly keels over, and Ron experiences that whistling zone-out a few times, including once at an intersection as cars zip dangerously close to him. Apart from these episodes, Vallée is pretty coy about the gruelling nature of the film’s motivating subject, believing perhaps that audiences are turned off by carcinoma far more readily than the sight of slim, pretty Leto snorting cocaine. Rayon does die, giving Ron and the film an appropriate emotional wallop, but it happens off-screen and comes practically out of nowhere. This lack, this avoidance of actually confronting the tenuousness of mortality and the tragedy that underlies even Ron’s punchy sense of purpose, robs Dallas Buyers Club of its natural conclusion, and also its character. Because sooner or later, this is tragedy, the tragedy of an era and a still-present reality the film tries to avoid admitting. So determined is it to send the audience out of the theatre with a positive vibe that even though Ron loses his climactic challenge in the courts to keep his business going, we still get the regulation scene of him being greeted on return by a clapping crowd of friends and supporters. Still, Vallée returns to his opening for the very last image, with Ron preparing for a bull ride, spied between two slatted bars, caught in a freeze-frame atop the beast as Vallée closes the loop of Ron’s life.