Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club is, above all, a celebration of life in all of its forms. It rejoices in our diversity while stressing the importance of tolerance, acceptance, and mutual cooperation. The film is a testament to the human race’s will to live and its ability to overcome even the direst of circumstances. It is also a moving tribute to the millions who have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS, gay and straight alike.
For years the AIDS narrative has been primarily portrayed on-screen from the gay perspective. This is no surprise considering when AIDS first hit in the early 1980’s it was labeled as the “gay cancer” and was continually ignored by the US Government. The gay community fought a long hard battle for the world to recognize that the disease affected all people regardless of sexual orientation and, most importantly, that millions were dying with no end in sight. It would take nearly a decade before any substantial action was taken.
Dallas Buyers Club makes a switch from the traditional AIDS narrative and tells its side of the story from the perspective of a homophobic, sexually promiscuous, drug-addled, booze-reeking, Texas good ol’ boy whose life is suddenly transformed by his diagnosis. Ron Woodruff, whose true-life yarn serves as the basis of this film, doesn’t start off as a particularly likable individual, but it is his journey that redeems him and makes his story worth telling. Not content to simply let life slip away from him, Woodruff takes matters into his own hands after near-disastrous results with the FDA approved AZT drug, and begins exploring experimental and natural drug alternatives. Originally only given 30 days to live, Woodruff beat the odds through his own determination and lust for life. He also gave hope to thousands by eventually offering these alternative drugs through his buyers’ club before his death in 1992.
Enough cannot be said of Mathew McConaughey’s courageous portrayal of Woodruff. Much has been made about the weight loss required for the role, but it is his full commitment to the emotional embodiment of the character that is most impressive. McConaughey doesn’t shy away from Ron’s seedier and more unattractive qualities; instead, he goes for direct honesty, not bothering to worry whether or not the audience will stay with him. He places his trust in the material and the naturalistic arc of the piece. When his transformation from “homophobic asshole” to compassionate fellow human being does occur, it doesn’t feel forced due to the bluntness that came before. It is a perfect marriage between innate actor charisma and a well-written role. You really do come away from the film not being able to imagine another actor giving life to this story.
If McConaughey provides the film’s backbone, then surly Jared Leto provides its heart with his moving portrayal of a transgendered woman, Rayon, suffering from drug addiction and the effects of AIDS. Leto is a force of nature in the role, neither succumbing to blatant stereotypes nor saccharine sentimentality. Rayon has her own spine of steel, daring to live her life openly in a place where many at the time would have rather seen her dead. It is through her good-heartedness and resolve that Woodruff begins to understand a group of people that he previously had blind hatred of. Their platonic romance opens his eyes to the world around him and to the importance of helping people in the same bind as himself. Rayon is a composite character — based on many different transgendered/LGBT individuals that Woodruff associated himself with in the 1980’s — and as such there is a slight falseness inherent to the part. Leto is able to overcome this with ease due to his chemistry with McConaughey, and his ability to cut straight to the truth of any given scene.
In recent months Dallas Buyers Club has come under scrutiny from the transgendered community, due to Leto’s depiction of Rayon and his questionable awards ceremony speeches. A lot of debate has occurred as to whether Leto should even be able to portray such a character on-screen, when many transgendered people are not given the opportunity to tell their own story. The sentiment is certainly understandable — and at a time when the gay and lesbian community are making such historical strides towards equality, it is unfortunate that transgendered people continue to be misunderstood and marginalized. They should absolutely be able to tell their story, but where do we draw the line on what actors can play what kinds of characters? Should straight people not be allowed to portray gay people? Should colorblind casting not exist in the theatre? These are dangerous questions that limit artistic expression and castrate an actor’s ability to explore different types of individuals and stories. There has also been noise made that the film portrays Woodruff as a savior of the gay community, who appear weak in their inability to fight the disease themselves. While it is true that buyers’ clubs were set up all over the country, with many of them being run by gays, this isn’t that story and there is nothing inherently wrong with telling this slice of history. The film’s message is simple – by accepting each others’ similarities and differences, we can overcome even the most tragic of circumstances. The film preaches life and love, a message everyone should be able to get behind.
For over twenty years, screenwriter Craig Borten attempted to get this story up on the screen. At one time in the mid 90’s Woody Harrelson was set to star, with Dennis Hopper stepping behind the camera into the director’s chair. That certainly would have been an interesting take on the material, but one can’t help but feel that this current incarnation was destiny. The stripped-down aesthetic of the film works every step of the way and it successfully avoids any Hollywood gloss, instead going for gritty realism. Shot in only 25 days, the love and commitment to the project is potently obvious from everyone involved. Dallas Buyers Club surprised many last month by garnering six Academy Award nominations, including a nod for Best Picture of the year. It shouldn’t be much of a shock, though. This is compelling emotional storytelling, with great reverence for our past and much-needed hope for our future. The fight for a cure to HIV/AIDS is not over, and this film helps shine a light on that ongoing struggle. It also remains one of the best films of 2013.