Dallas Buyer’s Club
Lots of college kids wanted to grow up to be cowboys.
Even the most composed liberal sneaks a glance at a swaggering cowboy. In his slouch, he exudes desultory confidence. Despite suspicions that he is a bigot, a lech, a lush and a fool, his mischief is dead sexy. He has something to teach Americans about our country. He’s not a thinker, but he does have the power to inspire political empathy. <i> Dallas Buyer’s Club </i> is about one of those cowboys. In a way, the film is a metaphor for a throttled America, and why we still feel tenderness for it, even though we should know better.
You could almost smell the beach, with a hint of stale hydroponics when Matthew McConaughey first saddled up onto the screen in <i> Dazed and Confused </i>. He looked tanned and corn-fed, the kind of guy that made even the highfalutin male consider a pair of skin tight Wranglers for an hour and change. Perhaps it’s something about reaching forty, but he’s turning into a proper actor. These days, he’s been bringing the business. In <i> Dallas Buyers Club </i> McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, a coke snorting, Stetson sporting, string bean misogynist, whose serpentine frame must’ve required McConaughey to adopt a very abstemious lifestyle in preparation for the role.
At the movie’s start, McConaughey is posturing and punching, but you can tell something’s rotting away inside him. His teeter totters dangerously on the brink of healthy. The bags under his eyes give it away. After one particularly bad fainting spell he ends up in the hospital. Ron flirts with the demur doctor Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) as she tells him he has tested positive for H.I.V. and has thirty days left on earth. Garner is muted and shy. Seemingly without makeup, she is a tough foil for Ron’s blustering. Incensed and incredulous, Ron goes on a bender, perhaps realizing on some level that his reckless shirking of the doctors’ orders reveals his own suspicions about his health. It takes some serious physical deterioration and a trip to the public library, where he learns that H.I.V. can be transmitted through unprotected heterosexual sex to bring him back to the doctor’s office.
Ron has done his research. He knows about AZT, a new drug being pushed for human trials. It hasn’t been cleared by the FDA, but it has shown some promising results and AIDS patients are dropping like flies. He pleads with doctor Saks. She says no, even if she wanted to she can’t. So Ron does what anyone with a death sentence would do- he goes to Mexico. It’s hard not to see the parallels to modern day America here. Scarce are the misguided souls who sympathize with pharmaceutical companies. There is a growing discontent with government and it’s labyrinthine bureaucracies that confound seemingly common sense procedure at every level of life. Ron is, in some ways, a Republican’s wet dream. He’s a cowboy entrepreneur. Sure, he’s got AIDS, but he’s straight and he’s graceful under pressure.
Yet the film is not a romanticization of an anachronistic vision of the American Man. It is much more nuanced than that. Ron brings back a huge supply of unapproved AIDS drugs from Mexico for sale in the U.S. On his return, he meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual suffering with the disease, who becomes his business partner. In the 1980s, when the film takes place, it was common parlance to refer to AIDS as “The Monster”. One look at Leto’s alarmingly emaciated physique can tell you why. Leto, of Jordan Catalano and more recently New York party boy fame, does a phenomenal job. The striking beauty that hypnotized ranks of teenage girls in the 90s glows through cheap makeup and a gaunt face. Trans people may be one of the last of the truly shunned groups of people in our society today. Leto’s beauty helps, but his devotion to the role is what makes you root for Ron to roll around with him in the sack.
As you might expect, the initially white knuckle partnership with Rayon softens Ron’s heart to people of what he would have previously thought of as deviant sexualities. Once his original crew of dudes learns that he has AIDS, they ostracize Ron. The words “Faggot Blood” are spray painted in red on his trailer. Eventually, he ends up physically subduing one of his old friends in the supermarket. After his ex-friend makes a derogatory comment about Rayon, Ron is not too weak to grab the man in a choke hold and force him to shake Rayon’s hand. It’s a sweet moment, and Leto does the bashfully touched blush with aplomb. What makes Ron’s transformation touching and not corny is that he maintains his mischievous, little boy swagger, while adopting a grown up point of view.
This is what we all really want out of America isn’t it? It’s beyond time that we all grew up. It’s crazy that Roe v. Wade is even on the table for discussion. We are well behind other developed nations on issues of health care, incarceration and education. The changes we need to make are glaring to the point of being embarrassing. And yet, we still want to ride high. At the end of the day, there are a lot of Americans who don’t really want to sacrifice that, albeit anachronistic, Old West flinty eyed stare.
Childish as this impulse may be, it is at least part of the drive behind a still very real feeling of American exceptionalism. While it is almost certainly fruitless to try to deal with tea party “radicals”, there’s something human about realizing that we can share some small, childish indulgence in fantasy with people from across the ideological aisle.