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Dallas Buyers Club Considered

January 24, 2014

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Matthew McConaughey in 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club, like all movies, is available to be anything to everyone. This essay for Visual AIDS, writer Anthony Easton explores some of what is going on within the awards season favorite, providing an opportunity to consider what the film is communicating around a variety of issues, including Texas, trans bodies and drugs.

Dallas Buyers Club has all of the marks of making someone who cares about HIV/AIDS pissed off -- it has a straight protagonist, played by Matthew McConaughey, straight love story that includes Jennifer Garner, and a straight actor (Jared Leto) playing a trans character who teaches lessons of mercy and tolerance. Plus the straight guy with AIDS is a redneck, a homophobe, and might have gotten the virus through anonymous sex in the back of an eighteen-wheeler. But being pissed about all of this provides legitimacy to a film, a movie that pretends it knows what it is doing, or even what it is about. Even in the glow of all the awards Dallas Buyers Club is receiving, it is good to break it down, and think about what the film is really about, what it is really trying to say, and being honest about where it fails.


Rodeo

Rodeo looks good on film, especially that god's eye view of the bull rider in his chute with the animal. It's also a useful metaphor. Think of the half failed Jack Twist, in Brokeback Mountain, he doesn't quite succeed at rodeo, nor at picking up boys in the bar afterwards. And although he does succeed finding a wife in the back of a car, that never quite works out either. In these films, the shift and pitch of the bull, mirrors the shift and pitch of an unstable life. In Dallas Buyers Club Roy Woodroof is shot at the rodeo, four important times:

  1. The beginning -- not god's eye view shot, but him in a sickly yellow shirt, against jaundiced wall;
  2. Him playing poker with his buddies -- talking about being confused about Rock Hudson and how he doesn't understand how he could be a "cocksucker" because he had all that "Hollywood pussy";
  3. When diagnosed -- he sits in the stand, and faces off against a rodeo clown;
  4. Lastly, when he is about to die, as a coda to the rest of the film, he rides a perfect white bull.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée shoots these scenes through the struts of the chute, or jumps quickly between wide and close up shots, or makes the whole scene crowded with people; he makes sure that the bronco rider is still there making it less iconic and more paranoid.


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Sleaze

What it means to be a cowboy in Texas is to be more than a little sleazy. McConaughey in the last few years, working against his vapid rom-com reputation, has been making an encyclopedia of sleaze, often about the ways men act or talk about women, when it doesn't matter if they are there. (See how he teaches The Kid to strip in Magic Mike; the endless monologue in Wolf of Wall Street, closeted queer and rape victim in the swampsleaze opus The Paper Boy, the contract killer and dirty cop in Killer Joe) There are bits in Dallas Buyers Club that are as sleazy as anything in those films. He drinks, he smokes, he does coke and meth, he rips off his buddies, he has a lot of sex, sometimes with women he pays. He deals drugs enough on the side, that most people seem to know him as a dealer rather than as an electrician. The day that he is found to be HIV positive, he and a buddy fuck two women.

There is a scene where he watches his friend screw through an open door--it becomes a kind of act of recursive framing: Him, looking through the door, to a mirror, three bodies in a very tight space. He wakes up after the bacchanal, discloses to his friend and, drinks more. The movie tries a neat trick, ennobling a sleazy character through hardship -- Woodroof's HIV makes him want to help people. A good things about that string of sleaze MM has done in the last few years, is that there were no efforts to make the characters either safe or palatable. Too bad that run couldn't have continued on into Dallas.


History

The first movie I ever saw about HIV/AIDS was The Band Played On, where the doctors played heroes, trying to find a cure. I have been living in the shadow of the disease for my entire 33 years, and know the doctors are not the only way of working through these issues. I know the AIDS denial movement, I know the ones that are convinced about the efficacy of plants, I know the fights about which care works better, and about the problems with meds and side effects. And, the history of those with AIDS versus those who are treating those with AIDS is still alive. If they are going to swing this movie into the murk of those debates, if they are going to make the historical movie they think they are making, it might be helpful to have some other conversation than just repeating AZT is poison, and the odd piece of set dressing. (Gran Fury's Reagan poster was a nice touch though).


Drugs

In a pursuit of drugs, the movie goes from Tokyo to Israel, from New York to San Francisco, it goes down to Mexico, and there was one line about going up to Alberta. It talks about Leto's character Rayon and how much she loves intravenous drugs, and Woodroof's fondness for cocaine is communicated. It hints at being a movie about how drugs are transported, bought, sold, and distributed. It almost makes a point -- hat the mechanics of the state, and regulation of the state, flatten the difference between what is good and what is bad (note how Jennifer Garner's character flirts with arguments against the efficacy of AZT). Making a film about unregulated pharmaceuticals being the new Cocaine, that is a film with some potential.


Problems of Money

Movies about the problems of money have existed since the silent films--from Eric Stroheim's Greed to Citizen Kane to Bonnie and Clyde to Risky Business. This film is about money -- with its cash in envelopes, card games, pockets full of hundreds, and even the idea of selling memberships. The movie feels like we are exploring quasi-legal cash money game and yet, one of the weakest scenes in the movie is where Rayon goes to her father at the bank. She asks for help, and their estrangement over her gender is made clear. Leto plays Rayon in a suit, and they talk about how much money Daddy has, and how much money Rayon needs -- it is not convincing. The "grey market" that keeps working class people afloat is absent from that scene, but it is present in the rest of the movie. The tension of green in plain white envelopes is never really addressed.

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This article was provided by Visual AIDS.
 
See Also
13 Moments in Black Celebrity Activism
History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities
More on HIV in Films

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