Dallas Buyers Club (2013)



Can any film review be unbiased? I watched this film while I was sick. People love this film. Ron, sitting one couch over from me and watching exactly the same film, was impressed. I was unmoved.

Okay, I am willing to admit that perhaps I was not in the best frame of mind for film watching. Since MIFF, my willingness to accommodate mediocre films has diminished. Ron had chosen ten dvds to help me while away my days on the couch, coughing myself inside out, and they weren’t the best selection. I had stumped him by saying they needed to be ‘not too heavy’ after the last time he got a movie out for me when I was sick and chose American Sniper. So he got a range of comedies with Eddie Murphy and Drew Barrymore and some dramas, including Dallas Buyers Club, Flight and The Grey.

Dallas Buyers Club is a good, solid film. In fact it is your classic Hollywood Oscar-hopeful film, now so formulaic as to be a cliché. Take a brave and controversial subject (AIDS), a ‘real-life’ person (Ron Woodroof) and cast a handsome A-list actor and make him really unattractive (Matthew McConaughey). Guaranteed to win at least a Best Actor Oscar and reminiscent of A Beautiful Mind (mental illness, John Nash, Russell Crowe), Philadelphia (AIDS, Andrew Beckett, Tom Hanks), Shine (mental illness, David Helfgott, Geoffrey Rush),  The Theory of Everything (motor neurone disease, Stephen Hawking, Eddie Redmayne), My Left Foot (cerebral palsy, Christy Brown, Daniel Day Lewis), Monster (serial killing, Aileen Wuornos, Charlize Theron) and The Hours (mental illness, Virginia Woolf, Nicole Kidman), just to name a few. You feel like they get the Oscar for being so ‘brave’ as to be less than their usual beautiful, heroic selves.

Dallas Buyers Club charts a period of US history when HIV and AIDS was just emerging and the development of treatments was in its infancy and relatively experimental. We see this through the story of Ron Woodroof, a heterosexual, redneck, Texan, bull-riding man with a fondness for frequent sex with a variety of women. He lives in a homophobic world and so when he inadvertently finds out that he is HIV positive with only weeks to live, he is understandably upset. He continues his alcohol and cocaine fueled lifestyle and is unable to get access to the new drug AZT that is being clinically trialled. He cleans up his act with the help of kindly doctor Jennifer Garner, and begins to source alternative drug treatments for himself and other sufferers, much to the chagrin of the seemingly evil FDA, the controller of all drugs.

McConaughey is almost deliciously unlikeable and he is the only fully-drawn character in the film. The other main ones – Jared Leto as transexual Rayon, Garner as Eve – are engaging but only vehicles to show Woodroof’s transformation. The others are all cliches – evil doctor, corrupt government official, kindly rule-breaking doctor, homophobic friend, tragic homosexual. The intent is clearly to make Woodroof into an heroic figure, campaigning and risking his own wellbeing to bring life saving drugs to the poor dying homosexuals.

I’m not sure what this film is about, really. Is it about an individual’s journey to redemption, or a David and Goliath battle between everyman and the government, or about prejudice and marginalised people? It is a little bit of everything, seemingly grounded in historical fact but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being sold a furphy. What grated most, other than the lack of female characters (yes, this one failed the Bechdel test), was the almost complete absence of gay characters. Other than Rayon, the gay characters were pushed to the sidelines as the brave heterosexual white man fought for their survival.

A bit of googling afterward showed that the true story had, of course, been ‘tweaked’. Woodroof was Texan and hetero but he was not homophobic, a redneck nor a bull rider. Eve and Rayon’s characters were inventions. So we aren’t really being told the story of Woodroof, we are being told the story that the Hollywood industry of today wants to believe, wants us to believe – that AIDS was a terrible thing and bad people were prejudiced but decent, white, heterosexual people like us were pretty decent about it, in fact they solved the problem. Meh.

2 stars (and they are both for Jared Leto)

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