March 13, 2014

Queer Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Dallas Buyers Club
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writers: Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O'Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O'Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne

A potent story about the development of underground drug markets in the face of the devastating HIV/AIDS crisis is undermined by Hollywood's propensity to straighten out LGBTQ heroes and the unfortunate casting of the talented (yes) but otherwise cisgendered actor Jared Leto in the role of a transgender character.

When Ron Woodroof (Mathew McConaughey) is diagnosed as being in the advanced stages of AIDS, he is given 30 days to live by the doctors treating him. Unwilling to accept this prognosis, he begins doing research on his own into the disease and starts taking off-market drugs that had yet to be approved by the FDA. Eventually, after a few complications and with the help of Rayon (Jared Leto) (a transgender woman who is also living with HIV that he meets during one of his hospital visits) Ron forms the Dallas Buyers Club, a program to distribute unapproved drugs that offer promise and hope to those with HIV. While this program is able to help some, it is not long before Ron and Rayon find themselves facing down increasing opposition from the authorities who want to shut down the whole operation.

The Queering
The story of the HIV epidemic is among the most horrifying stories in LGBTQ history. When the first HIV cases were discovered, the disease was deadly and before advanced anti-viral therapies were developed, the prospects of those infected were dark. In the absence of a cure and with so little known about the disease, terror and uncertainty were the characteristics of the day. It was the sort of time that tends to bring out the best and worst in people.

Unfortunately, only glimpses of the real life HIV/AIDS story make it to the big screen. While the essentials behind the actual Dallas Buyers Club formed by Ron Woodroof are approximately accurate, there are few rather problematic changes worth noting. For starters, several people close to the real Ron Woodroof have reported that he was bisexual and not at all bigoted, as depicted in the film. The other issue is that Rayon is made up. While this is not a problem in of itself, the character essentially fills the same role as a "Magic Negro" in that she helps Ron Woodroof to become a better person before winding up dead. This trope, for whatever reason, appears to becoming more often applied to LGBTQ characters, who like the "Magic Negro" serve as inspiration for the heterosexuals before typically winding up dead. Another recent example would be Tom Wilkinson's character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, as well as V for Vendetta which has two examples of LGBTQ characters who serve as inspiration for the main characters before going to the great beyond. Easy A provides a non-deadly example.

In other words, we have a story of a straigt(ened out) dude saving queers with the aid of a magic queer. In the Hollywood imagination, the only true hero allowed is the cis-gendered hetero. Ron is presented as straight and macho as they come. We see him fucking a woman in the opening scene and later on engaging in bull riding. There are few moments in fact, where we are not in some way reminded that Ron is a total hetero. Just for the record and at the risk of repeating myself, I wouldn't mind this so much if it wasn't for the fact that Ron Woodroof was (probably) bisexual.

Then there is the casting of Jared Leto, a cisgendered man, in the role of a transgender woman. There are potential problems with the character, given that while the filmmakers attempt to essay a sympathetic presentation, she still tends to come across as pathetic and weak. While I think it's problematic to ignore the suffering LGBTQ people went through at the height of the AIDS crisis, I find it even more problematic to have a weaker queer character contrasted in such a fashion as is done in this film with a stronger straight(ened out) hetero male. It just doesn't jive. And that's before we get into the problems with the casting of Jared Leto. Generally speaking, acting is about taking on the role of a person not yourself. Therefore, hypothetically speaking, in a world where transgender actors were cast to play cis-gendered roles, there would be no problem with the casting of cis-gendered actors to play transgender roles. The thing is, we don't live in such a world and thus the casting comes across as a blatant form of discrimination at best, if not explicitly transphobic.

On the plus column, the film is actually more than competently made, with the some effective examples of editing being employed to demonstrate Ron's mental functions breaking down as the disease ravages his body. There are also some memorable and evocative scenes, such as one involving Ron walking through an atrium full of butterflies that land on his body. Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner all give strong performances (at least insofar as their roles were written). There are also some interesting philosophical questions raised about the ethics surrounding drug testing when dealing with a disease as fatal as AIDS. How long do you let people die while tests are conducted to ensure the safety of a medication? Is it right to give people sugar pills (while tricking them into thinking they are taking the real thing) simply so researchers can isolate the placebo effect? And as I hinted at earlier, there are certain hints and shadows of the real AIDS/HIV crisis that do make it on screen, such as the scenes which show the fears and anxieties which characterized the era as well as, the extreme desperation of those people who had been infected with the virus in the early days of the epidemic.

At the end of the day though, none of these elements are enough to overcome the ahistorical straightening out that was applied to the story, nor the problematic casting of Jared Leto.

Not worth driving out to Dallas or joining any buyers clubs in order to see, unless one is desperately interested in seeing every film ever made with an LGBTQ character in it.

The Rating
2 out of 4 stars


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