I 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.