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.