Dallas Buyers Club Works Well Enough

Dallas Buyers ClubI finally got around to watching Dallas Buyers Club. I really didn’t want to watch it, but a lot of people told me I should. It turned out to be exactly what I thought it would be—exactly the kind of film that I don’t need to see. More important: it is exactly the kind of film that the Academy loves. And it is a well made film. It works surprisingly well as an episodic story. And I suppose we are supposed to think that Matthew McConaughey’s performance is amazingly subtle as he goes from being a homophobic jerk to someone who embraces the gay community. But I think that’s something that is more read into the film than is found on the screen.

To me, the main character, Ron Woodroof, is a selfish jerk throughout the film. But selfish jerks often do a lot of good, as Woodroof does. He has two primary concerns: keeping himself alive and making money. And it is not until the film is almost entirely over that he seems to care about anyone except in the sense that they help him in that regard. And it is only when he is too ill to care about the financial aspect of the venture, that we see what might be considered altruism. I don’t see anything wrong with this. As played by McConaughey, he has the feel of the lovable rogue. How can you not love a man who smuggles a trunk load of drugs over the US-Mexico border dressed as a priest? Moist von Lipwig was never more adorable. (Or is that “Adora Belle”?)

The film does a good job of showing what it was like for people early on during the AIDS epidemic. And it is a hell of a lot of fun watching Woodroof lash out at the haters, even as he still is one himself. At one point, he comes home to his trailer to find graffiti written on it, “Faggot Blood.” The door has had a padlock placed on it and there is what looks like an official notice on the door. So he yells, “I still live here, you hear me?!” Then he gets a shotgun from the trunk of his car, and blows the lock off the door so he can get his stuff. There is another scene where he forces a former friend to shake hands with his new transvestite friend and business partner Rayon.

In end though, I’m not really sure what the film is supposed to be all about. It seems like it wants to be an issue film about the drug companies and the corrupt system of FDA approval. And it makes a point about drug trials where those running them expect half of the ill to die, even under the best circumstances. But overall, this seems tacked on and acts more as a distraction. To me, it is a given that drug companies are always evil. The issue at the time really was whether the government was going to get over itself and allow people who were dying to do whatever they wanted that they thought might help them.

But in the end, the film works pretty well. And Hollywood can pat itself on the back that 35 years after the AIDS epidemic, a couple of unknown screenwriters and a Canadian director managed to get a low budget film made about it that the people liked enough, so that the Academy could nominate it for a bunch of awards. It helps, of course, that Ron Woodroof was presented as straight, even though he probably was bisexual. But this also means that it falls into the same troubling category of a film I like very much, Mississippi Burning, where the white folks come in and save the blacks. Here the straight man saves the queers.

Dallas Buyers Club is still an engaging film. It’s sad, at the same time that it is exhilarating the same way that Dirty Harry was. It’s stylishly shot, at the same time it is lit in a highly realistic style. And I think the editing is particularly good. In a film like this, pacing is everything. Given that the thematic thread of the film is very weak, the whole thing could have disintegrated due to its inherent chaos. Regardless, the film sticks the ending with a public defeat but a private triumph. And then it tacks on a short fantasy of Woodroof riding a bull in the rodeo. It’s pretentious, but the metaphor works on so many levels that I can’t imagine anyone not using it. And it allows our last view of him to be when he was healthy, which otherwise might have been a downer of an ending.

As I’m always on about, the issue is whether a piece of art works on its own terms. And Dallas Buyers Club certainly does that. I have no intention of ever watching it again, but I’m glad that I did watch it. And I can see why a lot of people really liked it. It’s unfortunate, however, that this is what passes for a serious film in Hollywood. I had the same problem with Crazy Heart a few years back, although Dallas Buyers Club is a far better film. So maybe there’s a trend. It is pretty to think so.

6 thoughts on “Dallas Buyers Club Works Well Enough

  1. Frank, here is what I had posted about Dallas Buyer’s Club on Facebook:

    Andrew Markoff
    Saturday, May 31 at 11:10am · Edited ·

    I saw "Dallas Buyers Club" the other night. Acting and editing were all outstanding, and it is a very good script.

    I found it difficult, however, to withhold my discomfort and my disdain for the ultra-Texas, sweaty, trailer park meanness of the main character, and peripheral characters were often only summarily drawn, sort of like a TV movie of the week. Overall, it was a top-notch movie in production, performances and script, but there is something missing at its core that may have pulled me in and given the film more heart.

    What I found disturbing was that it’s apparent that the real story of Ron Woodroof was not as portrayed in the film. I think that’s apparent because the drugs, the drinking, the meanness and the relentless homophobia portrayed in the movie was very likely exaggerated and chopped up into edited bits that created a filthy, steamy and rather grim aura about everything, including the hospital scenes. Over the years, however, the real Woodroof was likely just a little more subdued and a little less adamantly heterosexual.

    It’s exceedingly difficult to write a good and convincing script about a real person’s story, and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic was a complex and highly disturbing story in itself. The script (and the quick editing) for "Dallas Buyers Club," however, creates sketches and unnamed characters close to the central characters that altogether create an almost dehumanizing portrayal of a disease crises and those victimized by it and by the American health care system, if it could be called a "system" at all.

    Overall, the film simply portrayed a Texas culture that I personally find unbearable. Matthew McConaughey displayed that pretty well when he bounded up to the stage to accept his Academy Award and pointed to the ceiling to exclaim in a Southern drawl that his thanks for his winning performance goes first to God. He nodded at the audience for their participatory approval of his tribal claim to his one particular version of our God who bestows golden statues to the privileged elites.

    Overall, "Dallas Buyers Club" attempts to signal to a mass audience that a disease mostly transmitted through promiscuous sexual behavior and IV drug use amongst homosexuals, people of color and drug addicts requires our sympathy while we watch promiscuous sex, IV drug use amongst prostitutes and fey gay men, butch lesbians and gussied-up transvestites. We’re supposed to rise above any stereotypes while we watch straight white people learn to accept the very filthy, deviant set. How sweet.

    The concept works, but overall, it’s essentially just a concept, not a genuine portrayal of a very Texan sub-culture and the nation’s ability and willingness to respond to a health crises. I’m left with a doubt after seeing this film: was the main character really forced to learn to accept people who had been mostly rejected by his society because of his shared illness?

    I’m left with doubt because I suspect that instead of making lemons out of lemonade, the real-life Ron Woodroof and the people he surrounded himself with in his attempt to get access to treatment were probably just a little more human and a just a little less hardened in one another’s company as time went on. Lastly, however, the story of Ron Woodroof and his fight to gain access to burgeoning treatments for HIV infection has been so highly fictionalized by the screenwriters that the tranny-with-a-heart so convincingly portrayed by Jared Leto hadn’t actually existed.

    Films too often attempt to manipulate audiences in ways that that can almost offend when the subject matter is based on tragedy that has actually been experienced in real life. Some do it better than others, and "Dallas Buyers Club" made its manipulative effort a pretty good one, but the trailer park, bull riding, hard drinking, coke snorting, heroin shooting slobs portrayed by the film who are at the mercy of the rather humorless health care workers and FDA investigators are probably not provided the basic dignity and the humanity that the real persons involved in Woodroof’s story are entitled to.

  2. @andrew markoff – Obviously, we are mostly in agreement. The screenwriters have said that Rayon was meant to be a composite character to show Ron’s changing attitudes. But the truth is that their relationship doesn’t really evolve throughout the movie. It seems to transition rather quickly over a poker game.

    The original screenwriter met the real Ron Woodroof in 1990 and said he was terribly homophobic. That’s well after this movie ends. I can think of a lot of reasons why Woodroof would have seemed that way. One is that people can use inappropriate language without malice. Often oppressed groups take such language and make it their own, as in "queer." Maybe it was the screenwriter with the hangups. It’s also possible that Woodroof was trying to disassociate the AIDS crisis with the homosexual community. It is also possible that Woodroof was a self-hating gay man.

    I didn’t even bring up the Academy Award. What passes for great acting amazes me. It’s all about the part, not the acting. And the parts are ones that scream, "Look at me! I’m acting!" Anthony Hopkins got an Academy Aware for [i]Silence of the Lambs[/i], not [i]Remains of the Day[/i]. Dustin Hoffman got an Academy aware for [i]Kramer vs. Kramer[/i]! Which, as I recall also won Best Picture up against [i]All That Jazz[/i] and [i]Being There[/i]. What a crock.

    But for a typical Hollywood film, it wasn’t bad. It doesn’t completely offend me. But I’m not part of the target audience, so I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. It does remind me of an old quote from Woody Allen, "I could have made it twice as good and half as successful." The story of a self-hating gay man coming to terms with himself and his disease would have been more interesting. But not successful enough to win Academy Awards.

  3. I just saw Grand Budapest Hotel the other night and totally loved it. I’m going to try to write a review on Facebook, which has basically been my blog.

  4. If Ralph Fiennes doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Actor for Grand Budapest, well, I may go ballistic.

  5. @andrew markoff – I have a very turbulent relationship with Wes Anderson. But he is always interesting and occasionally wonderful. As for Fiennes, well, can anything compare to his role as Amon Goeth?

    I noticed you had started putting a Facebook link in your comments. But Facebook keeps telling me it can’t display. And since I don’t have a Facebook account, a lot of the time, I can’t get to pages anyway. Make sure you share them so I can get to them. (And yes, I know: I should really have a Facebook account!)

  6. You should have a FB account and you should alert commenters to follow up comments by sending an email alert.

    I only saw Schindler’s List recently. I always knew that I wouldn’t like it, and it turned out that I didn’t. I had never liked Fiennes, either, but his performance in Budapest was expert, precise and entirely believable even in such a fantastical movie.

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