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Dallas Buyers Club

by Kavish Chetty / 28.02.2014

Matthew McConaughey acts with anguished intensity in Dallas Buyers Club. His performance seems to command the explosive id that is, in his role as Rust Cohle in terror-edged thriller True Detective, sealed in a threatening chamber of nihilism, repression, distance. When we first encounter Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) in Dallas, he is mid- ménage a trois, synapses pulsing with coke and lust, suspended between two barely-upholstered prostitutes. On the other side of the wooden gate behind which he is rushing in his carnal entanglement, a bull-riding gig speeds one Texan cowboy to the terminus of his mortality. Dallas works with these kinds of simple parallels and metaphors: two types of danger lurking on either side of the gate, and Woodroof bordering both. Woodroof lives rough in mid-80s Texas: whiskey, prostitutes, cocaine – and he is suitably gaunt, gruff-throated and spitting up handkerchiefs-worth of blood. He doesn’t know it yet, but the “faggot disease” that his bar-mates and rodeo-rider buddies scoff at with venomous ignorance is running through his veins.

After his diagnosis with HIV, and the predictable interlude of disbelief and self-destruction, Woodroof begins to encounter some of the challenges faced by a culture – and medical establishment – whose knowledge of this emergent illness is still shrouded in mystery and superstition: homophobic slurs, social exile and most importantly, restricted access to experimental drugs that leaves him surrendered to a fast-approaching death. Dr. Sevard tells him he has 30 days to live. Dallas recreates a world recoiling with the fear of AIDS, in which the distribution of life-prolonging medication is being held up by the Food & Drugs Administration bureaucracy and procedure, going through test-phases and double-blinds while the afflicted waste away. Set in the unglamorous margins of North Texas, it tells the (stylised) true-life story of how Woodroof began sourcing unapproved or illegal medication and started up $400-a-month “buyers’ clubs”, in which to get it out onto the street. At its core, this is a small guy up against the establishment drama. It sacrifices much of the greater context in its tight narrative focus – semi-likeable asshole turned hero of the outcasts – and becomes too safe, too watchable, and too anchored down with crowd-pleasing tropes.

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Dallas does that usual Hollywood thing by focussing on a straight male who becomes the saviour of the marginalised, in this case 80s homosexuals. He begins the film himself as a flagrant homophobe (and racist), but his desperate alliance with gay culture helps him soften – from entrepreneurship to compassion. He is supported by Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner, who half-ruins the film with her irredeemably rom-com vibe) and Rayon (Jared Leto), a haunted transgender person. Rayon is meant to serve as the ultimate testing-ground for Woodroof, with her embattled sexuality: feminine swagger and bold bursts of red lipstick. She becomes, however, a stereotypical foil – a burnt-out and dependent queen, desperately requiring the aid of others to get by. Meanwhile, Woodroof becomes increasingly hounded by the authorities, subjecting him to IRS raids, confiscating his product on technical grounds, and generally bringing their administrative power up against his enterprise. He, in turn, smuggles contraband across the Mexican border posing as a cancer-stricken priest and makes trips to Japan and Israel – anywhere to keep the buyers’ club from collapsing.

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Dallas moves along with a compelling intensity, but in narrowing its window of observation it fails to properly register the social and cultural impacts of this moment in American history. The larger frame of the conflict it expresses – discontent with the medical establishment, and a growing and transformative consciousness about AIDS and homosexuality that is still playing itself out today – is better explored in David France’s excellent documentary “How to Survive a Plague”. Dallas is delivered as melodrama, occasionally soapy, sometimes preachy. It’s certainly sincere and watchable, but commits historical reduction to the point of marginalising its actual primary subject – gay culture and its struggles for recognition.

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