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20th February
2014
written by Mad Cow

Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content and nudity and drug use

Mad Cow’s Rating: three cowbells

This movie portrays a partially fictionalized slice of the incredible movement that swept across the country in the 1980s among the grassiest of grass roots, to deal with the AIDS crisis. Granted, the Center for Disease Control and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) were part of the fray, but mostly it was the LGBT community that was holding down forts of comfort, care, information sharing and protest. The story here, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) and written by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack (Mirror Mirror, Meet Bill), is about Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike, Mud, The Lincoln Lawyer), an heterosexual guy who started the Dallas Buyers Club to distribute AIDS drugs to people living with AIDS in the community.

Woodroof, a heavy drinker, drug addict and frequenter of prostitutes, works as an electrician and sometimes rides bulls in the rodeo. Discovering that he has fairly advance AIDS and has a short time to live, he gets to work trying to get treatment, but not before he loses his friends who accuse him of being a fag. He objects to the trials going on at the hospital, with some people getting placebos and others the drug being tested. He develops a decidedly adversarial relationship with Dr. Seward (Dennis O’Hare, a gay actor who will be in the upcoming The Normal Heart) the guy in charge, but is able to relate finally to Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner, TV series Alias, Juno, Draft Day) who at least sympathizes with his desperation.

A red-neck homophobe, Woodroof is converted to tolerance and understanding by a transsexual woman named Rayon (Jared Leto, (Lords of War, Mr. Nobody), whom he meets in the hospital. He travels to Mexico to explore alternative medications not approved by the FDA and eventually finds out about buyers’ clubs. Interested buyers “join” for a set amount per month and get “free” drugs. Meanwhile, he gets on a regimen of the drug AZT, which makes him worse, leading him to launch a campaign against it. The fact is that AZT in lower doses (part of a drug “cocktail”) is effective for some people even today, but one wouldn’t know that from the movie. The film is rather loosey/goosey about drugs. The Dallas club had the reputation of being less likely to test the purity of the drugs distributed and to be quick to recommend useless remedies.

Through the character of Woodroof and to some extent Eve, the movie conveys some of the fury of the movement at the time, raging against a government that was for the most part ignoring AIDS and its victims. In 1987 Larry Kramer created ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), specializing in civil disobedience. It’s unfortunate, and very Hollywood, that the rage here is located via a white heterosexual male, a single hero, rather than a movement, and a movement of queers at that. Still, Woodroof rails at the FDA, the doctors and everyone in between. McConaughey lost 47 pounds for the role and threw himself into it. We get that. Woodroof is a volatile risk-taker who undoubtedly enjoyed traveling around the world obtaining drugs and smuggling them into the U.S. and he literally helped thousands of people who lined up to get what they could get.

In real life Rayon and Dr. Eve Saks didn’t exist, Woodroof is suspected of having had sex with men occasionally, and he never rode in a rodeo. These additions worked to make points in the story, ironically a simpler story than it could have been, but a compelling one. Leto as Rayon was terrific and also lost weight (30 pounds) to play the role. She is an endearing character who insists upon being who she is, in spite of being sick and troubled. Leto has been criticized by those who think that a transgendered actor should have had it. This is true. Since that didn’t happen, I commend Leto in his portrayal.

I have known several people like Rayon and I think that Leto does the part well. He stayed in role, never going back to his actor self during the 25 days of shooting, and did his best to create a loveable character. She is a contrast to Woodroof who is righteous and determined but not exactly warm and fuzzy. A cis-woman (woman born woman), Denise (Deneen Tyler, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 12 Years a Slave), adds a calm and steady presence to the “office” (clinic?). Tyler, an African-American actress, has a small role but commands a presence in the film.

A fundamental issue here is that the entire movie is from a heterosexual point of view that includes “learning” about transgendered people, or at least one transgendered person. Eleven, a queer Trans filmmaker, makes the point that “pity is not the same thing as respect,” and I have to agree, but Rayon to me was a very sympathetic character and I respected her. Not just Woodroof’s sidekick, she is brave and unselfish in facing her life’s sorrows in order to bring help to others. It bothered me a lot that Woodroof and Eve kept referring to Rayon as “he” but maybe it was a sign of the 80s.

The movie is exciting, fast-paced, well-acted and photographed, with sterling performances. It introduces people to the portion of the AIDS crisis that led to buyers’ clubs, emphasizing the desperation that HIV-infected people experienced in the face of homophobia, ignorance and condescension from most of the medical community, the government and even the media. The lengths to which Woodroof went are amazing to watch.

At the end of the day Dallas Buyers Club is a typical American hero story, much like Erin Brockovich and countless other movies that attribute the end of slavery or the civil rights or women’s movements to a single person or event. If it had to be about an AIDS hero, I wish it had been about Larry Kramer. NOTE: One of Kramer’s many wonderful plays The Normal Heart, has been made into a TV movie to be screened in May.

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