Dallas Buyers Club: Too Crowded with Angels

At the outset I had a pretty good idea what this film would be like going in and with few exceptions I wasn’t disappointed. It was what I expected, not much more and this is not a bad thing. It was a safe and logical choice for the political climate, for McConaughey, and for the Academy to award its accolades, none of which were undeserved. It capably delivers its message about the human condition at its bleakest and, with an exceptional and mostly (if not racially) diverse cast, demonstrates how fear can bring out the worst in an individual, in the form of intolerance and bureaucratic insensitivity, or the best as courage and joi de vivre. But where Dallas Buyers Club is left wanting is in its surprising lack of compassion and, further, it’s lack of sympathetic characters and when the title cards appeared at the end all I wanted to do was watch another film, a superior one in terms of scope and beauty, of gravity and depth.

Exceptional performances aside, this film felt a lot like a homogenized imitation of Philadelphia, safely revisiting ground that was bravely explored 20 years ago by the latter, when the AIDS epidemic was still taboo and homosexuality was openly demonized in the public arena. Where Philadelphia was eye-opening and risky and brilliant, Dallas Buyers Club seems to reaffirm a positive sentiment, like Crash a few years ago and that’s all right, it’s a good message. Intolerance is bad and I sympathize; I suffer with you. But we knew that already. What carries the film is the directing and the performances and, with all due respect to McConaughey and Jennifer Garner, I haven’t seen any thing like Jared Leto in this role as Rayon. The only thing that comes close is Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight or Christian Bale in The Fighter, but this man is on an entirely different plane. When he is in frame the whole story has this immediate verisimilitude, it’s not a movie anymore and everyone else seem like good actors who have wandered into his world.

To elaborate, Ron Woodruff is not a sympathetic character, neither before his diagnosis nor after. He does not display compassion towards the other people who share his illness, gay or not, and his character arc is less about accepting than tolerating. His cause is not noble, in reality it is purely self serving; he either imports medication that is not approved by the FDA to stave off his own illness or to make a profit. In the end, his imminent mortality brought out his inner capitalist. But he does not come to appreciate or accept the gay community looking to him as a savior in any palpable way and seems to only endure their company as a means to an end. In the scene where Ron encounters a former friend who betrayed and spurned him after his diagnosis, he forcibly makes the man shake hands with his business partner, transsexual Rayon, not because she deserves to be acknowledged and respected, but because it made his former friend incredibly uncomfortable. It was a gesture of contempt, not respect but Rayon seems to not notice this and glows with affection afterwards. Perhaps this is an overly cynical way of interpreting this scene but in all honesty it’s hard to gauge Ron at all, he is too often an asshole.

More than that, and I want to take a second to reaffirm that this is a fine, well made film, Dallas Buyers Club falls into a sub category of White Man’s Guilt. Take Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai or Avatar, any example of its ilk, the problem is the exploitation of minorities who serve as a backdrop to, and are only rescued by, their own oppressors. It’s guilt assuagement, it’s reductive, and it’s mildly patronizing to all parties involved. And it might be a saving grace that in this particular story, as previously stated, Ron Woodruff is pretty far from a Civil Rights pioneer. The focus has less to do with the homosexual community than the medical industry and its development and regulation of new drugs to combat illness. As cold and detached as the doctors that tested AVT seem, they are objectively correct in their behavior. Woodruff introduced new and untested medication into a controlled environment, skewing results and setting back research that had taken years to procure. Although the companies that sell these drugs are easily demonized for marking up their products thousands of times their production cost it’s also easy to forget that it costs millions, and in some cases, billions of dollars in research to develop those drugs. So where is the line drawn between the person and the profit? Rhetoric is easy, debate is challenging, honest answers are nigh impossible when it’s a human life hanging in the balance but some people have to make those decisions on a larger scale where the needs of the many outweigh the need for a Star Trek reference.

The difference between a bigot and an ignorant person is that a bigot chooses to remain ignorant. Ron Woodruff really didn’t have much of a choice as he was forcefully and mercilessly evicted from his life after his diagnosis so I found his journey to be interesting and well-acted but less inspiring than others. This is what makes Philadelphia the more compelling film, Denzel Washington (in real life a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and devout Christian) portrays an ignorant person who chooses to discover beauty in the soul of another whom he initially detested. The dynamic between his and Tom Hanks’ character Andrew Beckett and the sympathy, nay, the empathy they discover is what improves and informs every moment between now and the hereafter where the streets of Heaven are… well. Too crowded and all that. So check out Dallas Buyers Club for the craft. But for the message itself, I have an entirely different recommendation.




True Detective: The Feeling I Get When I Look to The West

True Detective is noir. It’s the absence of morality or traditional heroes, it’s flawed idealists struggling to make sense of the world. It’s the place in time when the hero is returned to reality, after battles were fought and won but the war rages on. When the good guys have come and gone and still the demons run amok. This is one of my favorite genres, from Brick, to LA Confidential, and even Sin City, it’s interpreted in different ways but has one common theme running throughout. A flawed protagonist is doing the right thing out of some reflex, some compulsion to right the wrongs of the world if only in one small corner of it, in spite of the inherent futility they all are too aware of, having stared too deeply for too long into the eyes of one devil or another.

Marty: Past a certain age a man without a family… can be a bad thing. 

There is a feeling you get when you encounter true art, a sensation that envelopes your mind and quiets the voices that are trying to make sense of the world. It’s what beauty is, it’s order interacting with chaos, it’s a viewpoint into a world that is only accessible in fleeting glimpses. It’s the establishing shots in True Detective, it’s the writing, the directing, the cinematography, the performances. It’s the perfect storm of gifted people giving birth to a vision of nihilism and noir, vanity and viciousness, played out in anthology format; an amalgamation of the bitterness and depravity the world visits on the innocent and the men that unravel trying to make sense of it all.

Hart: You wonder ever if you’re a bad man?
Cohle: No, I don’t wonder, Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.

The truth is Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are not as bad as the men they hunt, but in some ways they are worse, demonstrating time after time a kind of vicious hypocrisy. Where Marty is a self-described victim of the Detective’s Curse, the inability to see the answers when they are in plain view, Rust is a horrifying emotionally detached executor of his own brand of objectivity, a force of nature obsessed with unraveling what he believes is the illusion of the human soul. In this way he is a gifted detective and an interrogator without peer because he ultimately does not see a human being, only pathos and impetus, weakness and fear. It’s these emotions that he draws out with sympathetic, hypnotic platitudes, like infected blood from a guilty heart. Afterwards he is remorseless, unmoved and emotionless again, smoking cigarette after cigarette with the kind of focused intense drags exclusive to smokers who are more interested in the poison than the satisfaction. Marty requires a less complex assessment: he’s a son-of-bitch, a cheater, a classic chauvinist taking his beautiful family for granted and then exploding with insecurity and misogyny when things inevitably fall apart.

Hart: You know the good years when you’re in them, or you just wait for them until you get ass cancer and realize that the good years came and went? Because there’s a feeling – you might notice it sometimes – this feeling like life has slipped through your fingers. Like the future is behind you, …like it’s always been behind you.

There is some criticism of the machismo on display in True Detective and the lack of strong female characters, most of whom are victims in one respect or another. It’s true the show does not pass the Bechdel Test in any way that I have noticed but if this is an indictment of the show as a whole, it’s misplaced. It thoroughly and mercilessly dismantles the main character’s masculinity every step of the way, demonstrating how warped and archaic this way of thinking can be. It’s as celebratory of testosterone and male virility as Fight Club, shining a stark light on the realities of emotionally maladjusted cowboys desperate to protect every unknown woman and child they can find while at the same time being completely incapable of maintaining a stable, healthy relationship with the ones in their own lives. And when their families and homes fail them they turn with fanatical resolve to the only thing that they can: the job, the case, the victim. Rather than evolve, they cling harder to thing they still feel control over with bitter, self destructive determination.

Cohle: I can’t say the job made me this way. More like me being this way made me right for the job. I used to think about it more, but you reach a certain age, you know who you are.

I’m committing to this final piece on True Detective before the last episode because I realized I have developed a bad habit of analyzing every episode along with the internet and it was eviscerating the pure joy of discovery, the personal experience the listener is supposed to be having with the storyteller. I don’t fault the blogosphere with breaking down every clue and detail episode by episode but it takes some of the fun out of just experiencing the story as a whole. No true raconteur wants to be interrupted and critiqued verse by verse, some things are intended to have meaning, some are meant to meter out a rhythm, a cadence that only the author knows perfectly in the life of the mind. It’s a lesson I learned from Breaking Bad, from the surprisingly subtle closing scenes, that the death pools and fan theories only detracted from what was really going on in the plot, from the real beauty of a patiently constructed denouement.

CohleThe newspapers are gonna be tough on you and prison is very…very hard on people who hurt kids. If you get the opportunity you should kill yourself.

Television culture has been trending towards the anti-hero recently, towards Don Draper, Walter White, and Frank Underwood. These are brilliant and engrossing characters worthy of the critical adulation but I can’t help but wonder where all the good men have gone or why we are so obsessed with the darkness of late. Maybe it’s always been that way and time is just like that crushed Lone Star can that Rust has been on and on about, that flat circle. What he’s describing, flourish and eloquence aside, is Hell: a place where our actions are repeated ad infinitum, without meaning or purpose. Which is where these characters belong but I also believe it’s where they choose to be. Morality may or may not be objective and although differing opinions of what its true definition is have been the source of all kinds of trial and misery throughout history, maybe it really comes down to choice, if there truly is such a thing. Choice and, ultimately, if there is still time to change the road you’re on.

CohleIn eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow. Nothing can become. Nothing changes. So Death created time to grow the things that it would kill…and you are reborn… but into the same life that you’ve always been born into. I mean, how many times have we had this conversation, detectives?

Dedicated to my buddy, Tim.