What should we do about Dallas Buyers Club? It’s well made and well meant. Matthew McConaughey is at his most go-for-broke. And if you’re going to tell an early-AIDS-era story, telling one with this much comedy is ballsy. The trueish story here centers on Ron Woodroof, an electrical contractor who, in the mid-1980s, was diagnosed with AIDS and started an experimental treatment network that brought small amounts of drugs into the United States from all over the world — drugs, that is, that had yet to receive FDA approval.
Ron is given 30 days to live, and some of the movie’s comedy comes from the umbrage he takes with the assumption that he’s gay. To paraphrase the lubricious stripper McConaughey played in Magic Mike: All wrong, all wrong, all wrong! Ron loves the ladies. The movie more or less opens with him having sex with two women like he’s riding a bronco. He happens to be having that sex at a Dallas rodeo, where, as he humps, he can see a rider get gored. He makes his way around the event, taking and placing bets, one on top of a news clipping about Rock Hudson and AIDS, and the point is clear: This guy likes to gamble.
In the days after his diagnosis, nothing changes for him. He continues to smoke and drink and snort and fuck. As he puts it at some point, “You gotta die somehow.” No one knows enough to comment on his arm lesions or his alarming gauntness. It’s around this time, at about the 15- or 20-minute mark, that the screen goes black and flashes the words “Day 1” and McConaughey embarks on a self-destructive bender so grim that you have to ask yourself: Why would you want to watch an actor do this to himself? Be this thin, this miserable, this out of control? This is the sort of reverse–Raging Bull vanity that made a hideous wraith of Christian Bale in The Machinist.
But these turn out to be the best passages in the movie — they’re grueling, but the visual language of suffering and addiction are sad and self-destructively human. The scenes of Ron trying to die are actually Ron trying, in his way, to live. As word of his diagnosis travels locally, his macho, mustached friends and coworkers cut him off and rough him up. He’s evicted from his trailer home. The art director supplies Confederate flags that the saturated camerawork is sure not to miss. As Ron faces so much violent ostracizing, the film’s thematic properties change. He peels himself off the floor and begins an ascent to a kind of moral respectability.
At that point, a movie that might have been the uncomfortable, peculiarly cinematic tale of a lowlife bottoming out turns into something else: a movie-of-the-week caper. There are drug trials being conducted, but Ron is too sick to participate. He winds up discovering a Mexican facility that has AZT, and he realizes that there might be a business in smuggling various AIDS drugs into Texas and selling them out of a motel. To get the drugs into the country, Ron dresses alternately like a priest, a pilot, and a businessman — like he’s all the Village People in one body. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack are the credited screenwriters for Dallas Buyers Club, and everything that was sideways about their movie begins to straighten out at this point — all its unique qualities become deterministically reassuring, like a work of Cubism being turned into a piece of stained-glass portraiture.
Even as the story of a hard-living heterosexual who profits from the AIDS crisis, the movie could have remained something interesting. In finding tragicomedy in Woodroof’s story, it could have turned into something cynically eccentric — a farce of the sort that Alexander Payne might have tried. But that sort of dark comedy is hard to do. You need a director whose sensibility can hold both compassion and disdain, truth and tackiness — and Jean-Marc Vallée gets only part of the way there. At some point, Ron discovers that one of the women in his vicinity at the motel also has AIDS. It takes about one cut to see him thrusting himself into her in a bathtub. This is a little absurd, but mostly it’s just human.
What’s dismaying about most of the rest of the film is the ease with which it gives up on that energetic absurdity. Everyone in Dallas Buyers Club falls into his or her allotted movie role. One of Ron’s doctors, a serious, disillusioned singleton named Eve (Jennifer Garner), is charmed into being a love interest. A butch black woman named Denise (Deneen Tyler) is the buyers club’s bouncer and secretary. And, to give Ron’s homophobia a swishy surface to bounce off of, the writers concoct a sassy transgender junkie who’s called Rayon and is played by Jared Leto with relish … and ketchup, mustard, and sauerkraut. We could be watching an important Hollywood movie. We could also be watching a rerun of Night Court. Throughout, Ron is that most constant and salable of archetypes: the straight white savior.
It’s a testament to the strength of McConaughey’s presence that what he has done here can be regarded separately from the film in which he’s done it. He has come into his own as a star. After the first 20 minutes, his acting no longer seems like a physical stunt — it’s the inevitable extension of McConaughey’s persona as a sleazy creature of sex. His body has always been central to his idea of himself as a performer: the chiseling, the oil, the sweating hair, the way he leans and slouches, the incurable shirt allergy, the swagger. We’ve never seen him fully nude. We don’t have to. He owns the cock in cocksure.
One reason he’s perfect for Dallas Buyers Club — and not for a part like the one Michael Fassbender had last year as a downward-spiraling sex addict — is that you wouldn’t believe McConaughey in Shame. He no longer has any. Back in the mid-1990s, McConaughey was being sold as the second coming of Paul Newman, but no one believed that. He’s like Jeff Spicoli if Tennessee Williams had written Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
As a star, he knows what his talent will not let him embody: virtuousness, nobility, sweetness. He didn’t seem comfortable as the studly theologian in Contact, the abolitionist lawyer in Amistad, or the man of Jennifer Lopez’s dreams in The Wedding Planner. He looked lost. Decency is a straitjacket for him. McConaughey isn’t a great actor, and he got tired of trying to act pure and, I suspect, we tired of it too.
But around the time of 2002’s science fiction action sleeper Reign of Fire, you could feel McConaughey energized at the prospect of not having to lift up an audience. He didn’t want to be Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, or Tom Hanks. He didn’t want social responsibility. He wanted a beach. Some stars click with audiences because we love them and we sense that they’d love us too. But with McConaughey, you’re always aware that he might love himself a little more.
That kind of vanity made John Travolta a superstar. He liked the way he looked. He knew the power of his charisma and he loved using it — on anybody and anything. What separated him from the classic stars, what made him modern, was that he made being sexy look like a lot of work. He played men who tried on clothes, went to gyms, fixated on their hair, gazed into mirrors. The sex he put into self-regard was revolutionary: He always seemed to know the camera was on him.
Part of the reason McConaughey’s dirtier version took longer to catch on was that it wasn’t for us. It was masturbatory. Unlike Travolta, McConaughey pairs nicely with most women (your Kate Hudsons, Sarah Jessica Parkers, and Marisa Tomeis), but he doesn’t need them. This latest incarnation of him, in which he presents as a desired object of fantasy and caution, is an ingenious conceit: Woodroof’s illness literalizes the thrill-seeking and vanity that eats away at a lot of McConaughey’s characters. Travolta’s removal of the magic of sex made him charming. With McConaughey, that lack of magic is dangerous. It’s tragic, corrosive, and lonely. He likes an audience, but you never feel as if he needs one.
So then, what should we do with this movie? Shake a finger at it? Ignore it? Just sit back and watch awards fly into its tractor beam? It’s easy to appreciate the film’s general achievement: It has dared to feature the early moments of the AIDS crisis, an event that the movies still don’t know how to dramatize. It’s as if we’re still not far enough removed from the panic of the early 1980s when the disease broke and movie stars were dying and the president of the United States couldn’t bring himself to say the word “AIDS.” It’s as if we’re still not far enough away from all the shame and the stigma to do more than memorialize the infected and the dead in movies like Longtime Companion or turn panic into metaphor as zombie and vampire movies have.
HBO and Mike Nichols did right by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, a gargantuan play that remains an artistic Olympus. Few works have come close to scaling a similar peak. The genius of Angels was both the breadth and audacity of its rage and the fancifulness of its historical invocation: Kushner’s contempt for hypocrisy spared no one. That’s the reason it remains in near-constant theatrical production — self-contradiction isn’t going anywhere. (The home of Angels in America also has Eastbound & Down, a big jolt of comedic irreverence that, this season, features a running gag about who gets to claim AIDS as a charity of choice.)
But a film like Dallas Buyers Club — with its reverse stations-of-the-cross structure — feels perverse by its very existence. But the film wouldn’t exist without Woodroof and a star of McConaughey’s persistent virility bringing him to life. Even in a time of legal gay marriage and the misleading popularity of Modern Family, there’s no easy way for a gay character with a life similar to Ron Woodroof’s to find itself in a movie.
You hate to keep bringing politics into these things, but these things are political, both by their very nature and through representation. It’s galling that a drama about the heterosexual homophobe who fought for an AIDS cure would see the light of a projector before more than a handful of films about actual gay activists fighting against one of our country’s defining health crises. A foundation should be laid before filmmakers start offering revisions and customizations, exploring dusty corners and quirky nooks. What’s going on here is not the same as Philadelphia, which saw a straight bigoted attorney (a black one, too) defend a sick gay man he presumed not to like. In Dallas Buyers Club, the bigot essentially is the hero. And you know what that means. Cue redemption.
Last year, the journalist David France met this problem of mediated representation head-on with his documentary How to Survive a Plague. That film built years of found video footage of the men and women at the vanguard of the AIDS activism movement into a galvanic drama. It wasn’t a work of retrospect. It was alive and seething, and was nominated for an Oscar. Shame became strength. Demise became determination. Comfort became trouble. The stakes around Woodroof were fraught. He was in nearly constant battle with the Food and Drug Administration. He was also dying. But Dallas Buyers Club still feels like the very thing France knew his film could ill afford to be: comfort food.