Being a member of the “millennial” generation, I spent a lot of my life not really understanding why so much of the art and popular culture of the early 90s was so obsessed with AIDS. When I was growing up, AIDS was just another deadly disease, the kind you could place in-between rabies, tuberculosis, and lung cancer in the “shit I hope not to deal with” file. I never really associated it with homosexuals and it never really occurred to me that there was any major stigma surrounding it. It was something that was too recent to be taught as history, but not recent enough for me to have been old enough to remember it. As such, whenever I’d hear about something like the play “Rent” or see the group TLC pin condoms to their outfits it always seemed a little strange. That “Everyone has AIDS” parody song from Team America: World Police is not too far removed from how some of this stuff sounded to me.
Over time I gleaned more about how widespread the early stages of the epidemic were, how immediately deadly the disease once was, and also about the social and political dimensions that were at play. It wasn’t until last year, when I saw the documentary How to Survive a Plague that I really “got” what was so uniquely frightening about AIDS in the 90s: namely that it targeted specific communities which would feel the full brunt of the impact. But How to Survive a Plague wasn’t just about the horrors of AIDS, it was also about the grassroots efforts to solve the crisis including the tactic of forming “buyers clubs,” which were organizations you could buy membership to in order to gain access to illegally imported drugs which hadn’t received FDA approval. Now, for all of How to Survive a Plague’s virtues, it was a very east coast-centric view of the AIDS crisis, and that’s where the new feature film Dallas Buyers Club comes in to tell the story of someone who was participating in a similar form of activism down in Texas.
This film focuses in on a Texas electrician/rodeo enthusiast named Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) who contracts AIDS in 1985. Woodroof is a straight, white, male and also the living embodiment of what people think of when they think of red states: he’s a bigoted, homophobic, he-man who lives in a trailer and will come to blows with anyone who slights him. Needless to say, he’s shocked and offended when he’s handed his diagnosis by a pair of doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner). After going through denial, anger, and depression, Woodroof finally starts doing something to treat his illness. At first he starts using AZT, which was the main drug being tested at the time, but he learns from a doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dunne) about a range of alternative drugs that he could be using. From there he and a transsexual AIDS patient named Rayon (Jared Leto) that he met in the hospital decide to open up business as a buyers club.
Woodroof’s motivations for starting his buyers club are more than a little dubious. He certainly believes that he’s saving lives, but he also makes no bones about the fact that he’s running a for-profit business and he does deny people service whenever they can’t pay. To make what is probably an overly grandiose comparison, he’s a little bit like Oskar Schindler in the way that he sort of walks the line between humanitarian and profiteer. That’s the thing about Woodroof, he can be extremely unsympathetic at times. There have been a lot of people complaining that this is a movie about AIDS in the 90s but told from the perspective of a straight man, implying that Woodroof was chosen as a subject because he’d be an audience surrogate that the film’s predominantly heterosexual audience would more readily relate to. However, in addition to pointing out that the “man bites dog” principal is in effect, I’d point out that at this point in time telling a story from the perspective of a homophobic asshole is probably the more challenging route when trying to elicit audience sympathy.
A lot has been said about Matthew McConaughey as of late. He seems to have realized that there wasn’t much of a future for him in making bland romantic comedies (a genre that has not been popular recently) so he’s been taking roles in a lot of independent movies like Mud, Bernie, Killer Joe, and Magic Mike. They’ve been calling it “The McConaughssiance,” and it’s been one of the more written about stories in the film world. A lot of his recent success has come from ability to find roles that fit his smooth southern persona. That’s sort of true here, but he’s a lot more prickly in this movie than he usually is. There’s none of that “alright, alright, alright” stuff here and, as is often the case with AIDS roles, there’s a lot of weight loss and weakness onscreen as well. Jered Leto is also good here, he has to do all of the usual “dying of AIDS” traits that McConaughey needs to exhibit but has the added challenge of portraying a transsexual. I was less fond of Jennifer Garner though, the actress does the best she probably could, but her doe-eyed well-meaning character is emblematic of a lot of the film’s weaker elements.
To be blunt, I went into this movie with some pretty low expectations. The trailers made it look really corny and I had a hunch the whole film would just be this really bland story of redemption. For the most part, it was better than I thought it was, but it loses a lot of steam in its third act and sort of does turn into that movie from the trailer. A lot of the ambiguities about the Woodroof character are smoothed out as the film settles into a relatively simplistic “Woodroof against the system” narrative. Woodroof’s hatred or AZT is not entirely rational: a lot of what the pharmaceutical companies were doing during the time wasn’t a shadowy conspiracy so much as it was the usual slow pace of scientific advancement and the laws in place to hold back unapproved medications also existed for some good reasons even if people with good intentions occasionally found themselves stuck in their crossfire. This is more or less acknowledged through a title card that’s onscreen for all of two seconds at the end, but the actual film doesn’t really acknowledge a lot of these complexities.
Ultimately I thought Dallas Buyer’s Club was a fairly minor film. Every award season we get a couple of mediocrities like this show up to ride the coattails of the overqualified performances that inhabit them. I’m thinking of past examples like The Last King of Scotland, or Crazy Heart, or Monster, or maybe even A Single Man. They’re not bad movies, they have enough going for them to qualify as passable indie fare, but once all the Oscars are handed out they quickly get forgotten. So, yeah, Dallas Buyers Club is alright. See it if it sounds interesting to you, but (and I hate to be that guy who insists that the obscure-ish documentary is vastly superior), How to Survive a Plague is a much better look at AIDS in the 90s and once you’ve seen that this kind of looks like weak sauce.
*** out of Four