Film Review: Dallas Buyer’s Club

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In 1985, Dallas rodeo rider Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is told by doctors he has a month left to live as he has contracted the AIDS virus from engaging in unprotected sex with drug users.

Ron applies to become a test case for AZT, a new drug that claims to prolong the life of AIDS patients, but is turned down. Instead, he heads to a Mexican clinic, run by an American doctor whose US licence was revoked. There he purchases illegal medicines that haven’t been approved north of the border, and with the help of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender AIDS patient he met in hospital, Ron begins to smuggle the drugs across the border and sell them.

Dallas Buyer’s Club may technically be an independent production, but in every other aspect it’s as Hollywood as it could be. American cinema has always struggled with depicting minority groups while striving for as large an audience as possible. Hollywood’s way around this has been to put mainstream characters at the forefront. This is why the biggest movie about the holocaust (Schindler’s List) doesn’t feature a Jewish lead character but a white Christian hero. Movies about the civil rights era focus on the contribution made by whites to the struggle. Last year’s flop The Lone Ranger featured Johnny Depp playing a Native American.

It seems American cinema is as uncomfortable dealing with homosexuals as it is Jews, Blacks and Native Americans, and so we get Dallas Buyer’s Club, a “true” story about a subject that overwhelmingly affected the gay community yet has a straight lead character, and a “comically” homophobic one at that.

The approach taken by director Jean-Marc Vallée and his writers opts for dramatic shortcuts at every turn. The basic set-up – pairing an outspoken homophobe with a transgender woman/transvestite man (the distinction is never made entirely clear and the character is purely a creation of the film-makers) – sounds like the most dated seventies sitcom imaginable. 20 years ago we saw a similar dynamic in Philadelphia, which paired an outspoken homophobic lawyer with a gay client.

Your ability to appreciate Dallas Buyer’s Club will rest largely on how much of a conspiracy theorist you are. If you’re the kind of person who wears a tinfoil hat to stop the government stealing your thoughts, you’ll likely see Woodruff as some sort of Messianic figure. The film-makers certainly do. In one particularly cringe-worthy scene McConaughey adopts a crucifixion pose. Most of us, however, will see Woodruff as someone who exploited vulnerable people to make a quick buck.

Throughout the film we’re constantly told of the ill-effects of the FDA-approved AZT, simply because it’s a cheap way to create false drama. I’m always dubious of anyone who paints the medical profession as the villain and throughout the movie I just couldn’t buy the conspiracy theory I was being asked to swallow. My suspicions were confirmed when, at the film’s conclusion, a title card informs us that AZT did, in fact, have positive results, confirming I had indeed just watched a movie about someone who jeopardized lives by selling dodgy black market drugs.

I’m not saying avoid Dallas Buyer’s Club, but be aware you’re being spun a false yarn, and leave the tinfoil hat at home.

Pictured left: Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyer’s Club.

Reviewed by Eric Hillis