Dallas Buyers Club

‘Cause you’ve only got one

dallasFew of us are enlightened by the fact that the FDA is an organization interested only in profit and control.  That said, one unfortunate aspect of Dallas Buyers Club, a character study of Matthew McConaughey’s version of the real-life Ron Woodroof – a Texas cowboy unexpectedly diagnosed with HIV – is that the most moving scenes are spoiled by the marketing, a fact made more unfortunate in that a film so greatly lauded turns out to be surprisingly formulaic and sentimental.  If not for the cursing and occasional groping, it could air on ABC’s family night.

None of this is to discount the very real struggles depicted therein, nor the performances.  Woodroof, after his diagnosis, meets Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who tells him about the only FDA-approved drug suitable for treating AIDS: AZT.  He bribes another hospital employee to get him the meds, only to realize that AZT (in conjunction with his cocaine use) is detrimental to his health.  When the deal with the employee falls through, Ron drives to Mexico to get more AZT from Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who tells him that AZT is essentially poison.  He prescribes Ron peptide T and ddC, drugs unapproved by the FDA, and Ron finds that his health quickly improves.  He lives far past the 30-day death sentence given to him by the hospital, and quickly realizes that he can make money and help people by importing these drugs and selling them to other HIV-positive patients.

Enter Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman, also HIV-positive, who befriends Ron in the hospital and eventually becomes his partner in the “Dallas Buyers Club.”  The remainder of the film involves the successes and struggles of the Buyers Club, culminating in the all-powerful (and seemingly omnipotent) FDA shutting them down, as well as the characters’ respective battles against the knowledge that they do not have long to live.  Rayon and Ron form a reluctant partnership that transmogrifies, perhaps too quickly even given the constraints of a two-hour narrative, into a rather sweet friendship.  Rayon gets a pretty nice share of the narrative later on, as we get a glimpse at his relationship with his father, who has all but disowned him and can say nothing complimentary aside from “I guess I should thank you for wearing men’s clothes.”

The disjointedness of the narrative speaks volumes to the conflicts of the characters: here are people who can never be sure, at any single moment, what turn their health will take, and are essentially waiting for terrible things to happen to them.  The plot movement closely mirrors this “day-to-day-ness,” linked only by a mechanical squealing in Ron’s head that bookends the entire story and threads important moments together (sometimes functioning as an easy transition effect).

Leto’s performance as Rayon has received endless accolades, and for good reason, and the performance itself and the decision to place a transgender character in a big-budget movie (the first time I can remember this happening) completely warrant them.  But a close viewing reveals something a bit sad: Rayon’s existence in the story serves no purpose other than to help Ron get over his homophobia.  Rayon’s time and amount of focus in the film do not even gain him the status of deuteragonist; he functions as the “manic pixie dream girl” who helps the man come to terms with his issues before disappearing (in this case because he’s the film’s sacrificial lamb, which also serves to motivate one of Ron’s big decisions).  This character, not to mention this story, deserves better than that.  Rayon’s potential is limitless and his appeal undeniable to anyone with half a heart and a fraction of a sense of adventure (has anyone looked more beautiful dancing badly onscreen than Leto in this?)  If scenes like the one between Rayon and his father were more numerous and came earlier (or were at least more evenly balanced with Ron’s), we’d have a more fleshed-out family of characters here.  Instead, we have a traditional “guy gets over his issues after meeting good people” story, going from referring to Rayon as “whatever the fuck you are” to embracing him in a long, genuine hug.  The film is rife with deliberate imagery (could the bull rides from the opening and final shots be any more obvious in their joint purpose?), which only hammers in the shopworn theme of “one man overcomes adversity,” a dish the Academy is devouring this year.

The film is worth seeing once for the quality of McCoughnahey’s, Leto’s, and Jennifer Garner’s performances, and its treatment of HIV-positive characters.  I’m not sure it warranted McCoughnahey’s protracted speech about Neptune, though.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013); written by Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; starring Matthew McCoughnahey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner.

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