AIDS/HIV | Film | Jared Leto | Matthew McConaughey | Nathaniel Rogers

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Movies: Dallas Buyers Club

  Dbc-parkbench
Leto & McConaughey have great bristling chemistry in "Dallas Buyer's Club" 

BY NATHANIEL ROGERS 

"Silence = Death" was a particularly genius political slogan for AIDS activists in the 1980s. Potently succinct, righteously angry, and, best of all, both literally and spiritually true. The conversations it prompted about systemic gay oppression, political complacency, the importance of frank sexual discussion, and gay liberation -- particularly in regards to the fight against HIV and AIDS -- surely saved countless lives. But isn't it a curious thing that HIV/AIDS in the arts and entertainments still remains so tied to gay-only narratives of roughly a ten year window from the early 80s through the early 90s? Time to tell new stories from fresh perspectives?

Enter DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, one of the first AIDS dramas (that I can recall at least) that is not about the gay community. Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroff, a hard-living homophobe electrician. When we first meet him he's having a drug-fueled three way with two women behind the scenes at the rodeo. While we're watching him getting it on, he's watching a man getting gored at the rodeo. This opening sequence arguably shoves the entirely less useful 'Sex = Death' argument in your face, but the film quickly finds its footing as an involving drama about a man who doesn't know what's knocked him out and also is too damn stubborn to stay down.

MORE AFTER THE JUMP...

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Dbc-doctorsWoodroff's health rapidly deteriorates (McConaughey famously lost 40ish lbs for the role) and at a disorienting visit to the local hospital, he's informed by two doctors (Denis O'Hare and Jennifer Garner, playing unfortunately broad characters - let's call them "Bought & Paid For" and "Compassionate Soul") that he has the HIV virus. He reacts with angry homophobic slurs and informs the doctors that they're wrong. But one of the smartest details in McConaughey's emotionally detailed performance (he doesn't coast on the physical transformation) is that this feels less like true denial than a hostile attempt at saving face; deep down, you can see the horror of recognition since he knows it's true.

Once Woodroff has accepted the diagnosis the film shifts into something like a medical mystery / con-man drama as Woodroff partners up with a local transgendered woman Rayon (Jared Leto, also terrific) to form a "Buyers Clubs". Buyers Clubs were a little discussed but fascinating substory from AIDS history in which affected regional communities would sometimes form organizations to treat their diseases creatively without waiting on the FDA to release drugs trapped in the lengthy testing/approval processes. Loophole: You can't sell illegal possibly deadly / possibly life-saving drugs, but you can sell memberships to private clubs. And then your club members get "free" drugs. At first the medical establishment looks the other way but soon Big Pharma, with millions riding on the success of AZT, begins to target the Buyers Clubs and views Woodroff as a major thorn in their side if not quite a true threat.

The French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, best known previously for the slightly dull royalty drama The Young Victoria (2009) and a very feisty Canadian hit called C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) about the gay son of a conservative family, lands somewhere in the middle with this new film in terms of its energy. He wisely steps back without a lot of visual fuss, often into medium shots, to let you see the astonishing physical commitment of the actors.

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Both stars run with the opportunity, or strut with it in this particular case. Woodroff and Rayon are vain peacocks, albeit of different gender identities and sexual preferences. As the cowboy and the queer perform their separate ideas of Texas masculinity and self-identified femininity (Gender Studies majors, take notes!) they often bristle as they pass each other on their personal runways. McConaughey and Leto sell this tetchy friendship and messy business partnership with everything they've got from their rail thin bodies to their gaunt emotive faces. The film makes an interesting counterpart to Philadelphia (now 20 years old) in that though it again pairs a homophobic straight man with an out AIDS victim, it doesn't congratulate the homophobe for becoming "tolerant". This time it sits back impatiently waiting for him to stop being such an asshole!

That's progress, people.

Still, to both actors' credit, Woodroff and Rayon are never entirely reformed people. They are who they are, self-destructive and self-righteous, proud and loud. Their edges aren't smoothed over for simplistic hug it out uplift even when they're, uh, hugging it out. I'm sure there will be many people who are more well versed in AIDS treatments or history that may bristle at some elements of the movie or omissions from the plot, particularly in regards to its hospital sequences. I'll admit I was confused by the characterization of AZT as something of the film's boogeyman since most AIDS dramas I've seen treat it like a godsend. But in the end I accepted it under the broad umbrella of 'nobody knew what the hell was going to kill people or make them better and everyone was scared shitless').

In the end the medical procedural recedes anyway, leaving only the human drama. What emerges is not a boilerplate 'triumph of the human spirit!' biopic but a clear-eyed glimpse at defiance in the face of indifference, ostracization and death. I loved the arc that the film manages, transforming one of Woodroff's most unlikeable scenes (the diagnosis) into something you have to look back on with admiration. The same misdirected pride that had him lashing out like an ignorant bigot, is also fueling his outspoken fight for life. He won't be going quietly.

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Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

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Comments

  1. After too many years the world is.no better aquainted ..
    I recently read an article about the "deadly HIV virus"..
    HIV needs to be addressed as what it is..its not a gay disease..it's a human disease..it's not a deadly disease as it once.was..
    Lately I've heard too many straight guys and girls discuss the avoidance of condoms because they don't like the feeling...straight guys and girls need to be educated in the same way gay men are.

    Posted by: Grant | Nov 3, 2013 11:08:48 PM


  2. "Our Sons" (1991) was an AIDS drama that dealt with more than one gay issue but wasn't about the gay community. Starred Hugh Grant, Željko Ivanek, Julie Andrews, Ann-Margret.

    Posted by: sparks | Nov 4, 2013 1:13:39 AM


  3. Dem candidate and frontrunner for governor comes out

    Posted by: [email protected] | Nov 4, 2013 1:19:25 AM


  4. 'Silence = Death' is still a relevant phrase.

    And it applies to scum of the earth like Thomas Roberts, Johnny Weir and Elton John and all those Olympic athletes who are sitting idly by as the Russian dictatorship comes for the LGBT community, and they say and do nothing

    Posted by: MaryM | Nov 4, 2013 6:22:39 AM


  5. MaryM - You need help. The world and its people are complicated. Just because someone isn't following your direction, doesn't mean they're evil. You just named 3 people who have done more to make homosexuality more accepted than you could ever hope to do. In fact, my guess is that every day you do a little bit of the opposite.

    Posted by: Markt | Nov 4, 2013 8:20:51 AM


  6. hets get it, too, is fine to say, but let's not lose sight of the fact that gay men are, statistically, getting infected 100 to 200 times as straight men, per capita, any transmission route.

    Posted by: bobeau | Nov 4, 2013 8:26:39 AM


  7. You were incorrect when you said "But isn't it a curious thing that HIV/AIDS in the arts and entertainments still remains so tied to gay-only narratives of roughly a ten year window from the early 80s through the early 90s?"

    Here is a list of movies that have characters getting AIDS who aren't gay men:

    1. Girl, Positive
    2. Go Toward the Light
    3. The Ryan White Story
    4. Yesterday
    5. Something to Live for: the Alison Gertz Story
    6. The Cure
    7. Sweet Jane

    If you are going to review movies, don't make general, blanket statements unless you are sure you have the facts right.

    Posted by: Watch It! | Nov 4, 2013 9:04:03 AM


  8. Some individuals need to grow lives..or hit a gym already...

    Posted by: Ankerich | Nov 4, 2013 9:51:00 AM


  9. @ANKERICH,

    You're such a waste of a human life... If you are human, which I doubt.

    Do everyone a favor and STFU, loser.

    Posted by: STFU | Nov 4, 2013 2:49:54 PM


  10. I guess they are going to have to increase the number of actors in the Academy's Best Actor category for this year. There's brilliance all over the f.cking place in movies this year.

    Posted by: Derrick from Philly | Nov 4, 2013 3:02:04 PM


  11. 3 Needles, is not gay-centric. Absolutely heart wrenching to watch!
    From IMBD

    A three-paneled look at the worldwide AIDS crisis: in Montreal, a porn actor (Ashmore) schemes to pass his mandatory blood test; a young nun (Sevigny) makes a personal sacrifice for the benefit of a South African village; in rural China, a black market operative (Liu) posing as a goverment-sanctioned blood drawer jeopardizes an entire village's safety.

    Posted by: John in Chicago | Nov 4, 2013 3:35:15 PM


  12. Back then, AZT was one of many experimental drugs, and drew suspicion like every other drug. Of course, it didn't work quickly, there were a host of other complications to deal with, and there were terrible side effects, so no one knew that it really did work.

    A friend and his partner were diagnosed with AIDS at the same time. My friend opted to take AZT and is still alive.

    Posted by: Topol | Nov 4, 2013 8:14:22 PM


  13. This is such a wonderful movie that is full of drama and lessons in life. I have watched it a couple of times already but it doesn't get boring. They should be doing more movies like this.

    Posted by: Alex Ward | Nov 16, 2013 10:54:48 PM


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