Matthew McConaughey is a phenomenally charismatic actor, capable of nuanced, complex portrayals of men who are undone by their coolness or at the extreme by their sheer masculinity. Even if McConaughey’s clothes droop off his gaunt, sickly frame, his performance as Ron Woodruff fits the actor’s strong suit like a glove, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role—indeed, his presence is the one saving grace of Dallas Buyers Club, a true-story film that tracks a homophobe from his hard-livin’ ways through his AIDS diagnosis and into his life’s redemptive denouement. It’s a shame that the movie counteracts McConaughey’s talents—his physical performance relies heavily on body language to communicate anger, frustration, confusion, and the sense that he’s a bit surprised to realize that his brawler’s instincts cause him to defend those whom he had once so indifferently demeaned—by wallowing in generic biopic tropes and relying for much of its dramatic and all of its comedic heft on an archaic and simplified point of view, suggesting that we all need to learn that HOMOS AREN’T THAT GROSS AFTER ALL. Maybe it’s just me—I’m twenty-four—but I thought we crossed that bridge a long time ago; there’s a reason Philadelphia comes across as dated, and Dallas Buyers Club felt cut from the same cloth to me. The film expects the audience to get a lot of mileage from the fact that gay people have sex with people who have the same genitals as them.
Well, duh. And the film’s only gay character of any substance, Rayon (Jared Leto), happens to be a flaming drag queen? That’s only further simplifying matters and accentuates the film’s older-generation point of view, because it creates easy jokes for McConaughey’s character: Look, this guy who loves pussy is gonna have to interact with a cross-dresser! Never mind that the film squanders Leto’s character, too; Rayon beats Ron at cards in their first meeting—what a humiliation!—but instead of creating some push-and-pull between the two, Rayon devolves into your standard drag-queen stereotype, complete with drug addiction. I understand that Ron Woodruff was a product of his time, and that the popular discourse of the 1980s was quick to condemn “faggots” for spreading the plague of HIV and AIDS, and that the necessity of working with a group he had once denigrated so casually will certainly cause him to change, and that Woodruff and Rayon were as affected by the crisis as too many other gay and straight people, but c’mon, man. Two extremes does not a full story tell, and Dallas Buyers Club bifurcates its story’s impact by cleanly dividing its subjects into swordsman straight and hey-sweetie gay instead of representing the wide cross-section of those who contracted and suffered from HIV. McConaughey and Leto bring those two extremes to life, but for a movie ostensibly about how one guy ran a club, it unfortunately voices little interest in the club’s members.
I think part of the movie’s problem comes from its rather indefinite villain. We’re meant to know that homophobia is bad, and that the FDA in its recalcitrance to approve and study new forms of treatment that would benefit HIV/AIDS patients was bad, but not much beyond this. Why was homophobia so rampant in American society before and throughout the AIDS crisis? Did homophobes use their prejudices as a crutch or a mask for their own self-loathing? How did AIDS confirm the homophobia of some? What motivated the FDA, and why did the government stand callously, idly by for so long? You’d wouldn’t think that a film that depicts a facet of the AIDS crisis would struggle to answer these questions, but Dallas Buyers Club seems to offer few responses beyond “lots of people thought gays were gross” and “the FDA was in cahoots with BIG PHARMA and, because this is Hollywood, we know that’s bad.” Aside from Woodruff, homophobia is a constant—you either are or you aren’t. And aside from Dr. Eve Sacks (Jennifer Garner), of those in the medical community, you either ask questions or you don’t. That seemed to me a gross over-simplification, a means of charting characters on a list of good or bad, a dissection that was one of the movie’s common themes. One of the reasons I so admired 12 Years a Slave was its commitment to exposing the psychological violence that underlay the physical, while Dallas Buyers Club, a movie that was made because the story could not have happened were it not for the overt and/or indirect bigotry of many, examines the psychology of discrimination at only a surface level. The film can’t really even demonstrate that the AIDS crisis may have confirmed what some homophobes thought of gay people, because the film’s homophobes couldn’t have been more disgusted by gay people to begin with. It’s clear that we have to fight homophobia, and be angry with those who stood in the way of developments that would have helped targets of that homophobia, but Dallas Buyers Club can’t put a face on these antagonistic attitudes, relying instead on the usual emotional cues.
It can’t put a complete face on its protagonists either. It doesn’t bother me that the film’s central character is a straight guy; with 12 Years a Slave and now Dallas Buyers Club there’s been a resurgence in criticism that chronicles with alarm the frequency with which minorities are grossly underrepresented in movies that reenact some of the most protracted and deep-rooted civil rights battles of our country’s history. That alarm is often appropriate. White people did not win civil rights for the descendants of slaves; to wit, fifty years ago the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom featured only one white speaker on a program that had eleven giving remarks. Straight people did not raise AIDS awareness by themselves; I’d urge you to watch last year’s documentary How to Survive a Plague and consider the composition of ACT-UP, whose membership was largely gay and lesbian—they ran the organization, too. But Woodruff did have HIV, and Solomon Northup, though a freeman, was also a slave, and a black man (making him part of an even smaller minority who were all three), and it would be wrong to deny them their opportunity to tell their stories. I also bristle at the suggestion that a straight person cannot tell the story of the AIDS crisis because he or she didn’t live it—sometimes a dramatization might benefit from a modicum of emotional if not informative detachment that is also combined with empathy. The flaw isn’t that Ron Woodruff is a well-rounded character; the flaw is that no one else is.
It’s the empathy that is critical for any filmmaker, straight, gay, black, white, man, woman. And while Dallas Buyers Club had empathy for Ron Woodruff, I’m not sure it had much beyond sympathy for Rayon, and it barely registered concern or empathy or anybody besides those two. When Woodruff would arrive at the motel out of which he sold membership in the movie’s titular club—membership that then allowed access to the combination treatment that Woodruff smuggled in from abroad and supplied in competition to a trial of non-combination AZT—there, out of focus, stood a long line of prospective members. Sadly, they remained out of focus, the only exception being an older, sweet, well-dressed male couple who needed the drugs and who later donated a house so Woodruff could run his operation out of arm’s reach of the authorities. But even this couple, who could have provided a study in contrast to the film’s almost-singular conception of gay people as envisioned by Rayon, remained largely in the shadows, without much to say. The actors’ faces did plenty of talking, and I wish I could have seen more, and different, faces.
The story of the plague is on one level quite simple—homophobia is disgusting, those in power too systematically disdained a group of people who needed help that both government and science could have provided without so much as lifting a finger, and when the matter is life or death, to be gay and to need drugs is a simple, incisive truth and it was criminal to watch as many died. But the story is insidiously complex on another level, a level that went wholly unearthed by Dallas Buyers Club. If only its depiction of Ron Woodruff had extended to its ensemble. Hell, if only Matthew McConaughey could play everybody in the ensemble—you would’ve had a better film.