' Cinema Romantico: Dallas Buyers Club

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

There is a tight shot in which we find our protagonist Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) splayed before a series of dimly lit red candles, confessing his sins, or, at the very least, pleading desperately with God to save his life or spare his soul, either/or. Then the shot switches. The camera is much further back and we realize he is not in a church confessing, but at a table in a dank strip club with a drink and a scantily clad woman gyrating in front of him. The meaning could not be more clear - saint and sinner, angel and devil.


That dichotomy is both striking and obvious, and that would be also an apt description for "Dallas Buyers Club", which in spite of being a rip-roaring, rule-breaking true life tale of a big hat, no cattle Texan diagnosed with HIV in the mid-80's, fits snugly into the limitations of the disease-of-the-week genre. Ultimately those limitations and its apparent disinterest in viewing the entire panorama of the AIDS crisis are rendered meaningless, and this is because of an astonishing lead performance by Matthew McConaughey, playing a part that doesn't seem a stretch but still feels brand new.

Woodruff, an insistent heterosexual with a thirst for booze, a lust for ladies, an occasional taste for drugs, and a damn the torpedoes attitude learns his diagnosis not far into director Jean-Marc Vallée's film. He is told he has thirty days to live by the requisite smug doctor (Dennis O'Hare) who knows better than him. (A requisitely luminous Jennifer Garner is the other doctor in order to ensure that doctors CAN be caring people!) Ron, of course, lives a lot longer, first popping too much of an unapproved drug that lands him back in the emergency room and then flying to Mexico and kicking off a whole new anti-FDA regimen that works well. So well, in fact, that Ron poses as a priest (saint/sinner!!!), smuggles in a trunk load of vials and cuts the ribbon on The Dallas Buyers Club, selling a cut-rate membership to the HIV infected for all the drugs they need. Legality, of course, is beside the point. "They're not illegal," Ron explains, "merely unapproved."

That line will make you realize just how charismatically McConaughey can turn a cliche, and that is what he does over and over throughout "Dallas Buyers Club", apparently indifferent to the screenplay's timeworn intention to set him forth on The Hero's Journey. He is introduced as a bigot, AIDS is made to be the problem, and the ensuing struggle is all about the elixir of redemption and enlightenment. To be sure, Ron Meets Cute with Rayan (Jarod Leto, gracefully subverting any hint of caricature), his transgender hospital room mate who will help to open this homophobe's eyes. Ah, but simply because Ron's eyes are opened, don't assume this will elicit a New Man.


In a way, Ron Woodruff is a Frank Capra Every Man for the Me Decade, presented more as a clever capitalist than an AIDS activist, simply finding a way to significantly profit from the sickly hand he's been dealt. Ethically he might be a schmuck, but damn if you can't admire his entrepreneurial craftsmanship, and it is through this medicinal trafficking that Ron's worldview is re-shaped. Who says good old fashioned American greed can't collide with a little good will?

The friendship between Ron and Rayan, the film's most vital, is primarily a business partnership, Rayan more or less acting as Ron's Buyers Club receptionist, a notion which actually plays straight to gender stereotypes. And that's how Ron, I think, wants it. Even having contracted HIV, even spending his days and nights in company of gays, Ron never quite warms to them nor even accepts them, but still manages to (amidst all the good ol' boy posing) quietly unearth a respect for them that goes beyond client/peddler. The way he deals with an ex-friend upon an un-friendly encounter in a grocery store is ripped from the pages of the Casting Stones Playbook, yet McConaughey makes it seems less a Victory For Civil Rights than an ornery Texan kicking ass and taking names.

Which is why the film's lack of focus on the Big Picture, the over-arching AIDS epidemic, the inequality to which the infected would have been subjected, feels correct for the material. Gay rights is important, don't get me wrong, but "Dallas Buyers Club" is all about one unlikely man's untraditional road to tolerance.

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