Film Review: Dallas Buyers Club (MA15+) (USA, 2013)


If you’re making a film “based on a true story”, what responsibilities do you have to your true story?

It’s a question that’s been raised several times over the past year – with several major details of The Butler proving to be fabricated, and the truths of 12 Years A Slave called into question, it bears discussion as to how true a true story has to be on screen.

So along comes Dallas Buyers Club, a story set amidst the uncertainty of the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis. The epidemic rapidly reached crisis levels when the disease was officially discovered in 1981 (though it was almost certainly present up to a decade before then). As it, at first, predominantly affected the gay male population, the government was extremely slow to act on methods of treatment and prevention – in part due to rampant homophobia at the time – and the public reaction to the epidemic led to patients taking healthcare into their own hands, and fervent activism against the institutions to lobby for change. (The time period is brilliantly explored in the 2012 documentary How to Survive A Plague.)

Dallas Buyers Club introduces us to Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) – a bull-riding, drug-taking, sex-loving guy who after sudden bouts of ill health, is diagnosed with full blown AIDS and given thirty days to live. Discovering that the only medication approved by government regulators is doing more harm than good, he takes his health into his own hands and travels across the border to Mexico to acquire alternatives; with the assistance of transgender AIDS patient Rayon (Jared Leto), he starts the Dallas Buyers Club, where patients pay a monthly fee and receive unapproved medication – technically – free of charge.

The Ron Woodroof we meet in the film is not a gay man. Far from that, he is a straight man who for much of the film’s runtime is quite vocally homophobic. In actual fact, real life Ron Woodroof was quite openly bisexual and decidedly not homophobic – and no matter which way you cut it, that’s a lot of dramatic license. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria) has elected to present us with a Hollywood version of the AIDS epidemic – one in which a heroic straight man decides to act and save the day, and is ultimately transformed by his altruism – yet this decision has left Dallas Buyers Club completely on the wrong side of history.

The join-the-dots character arc of a homophobic straight man dealing with discriminatory attitudes towards his illness is compelling stuff for a Hollywood film, but in electing to tell Woodroof’s story as a straight male saviour, Dallas Buyers Club completely erases the significance of the HIV/AIDS crisis to the LGBT population, and their unrelenting efforts in lobbying for institutional change. It’s more than a little reductive to have the story of the HIV/AIDS crisis told through the eyes of a straight man who continually hurls homophobic slurs for much of the runtime. (The sad irony is, had Woodroof been a gay male character, the film probably would never have seen a mainstream audience.) While AIDS is not and has never been a discriminatory disease, affecting people of all sexual orientations and walks of life – the film goes to great lengths to remind us of Ron’s heterosexuality  – the epidemic signifies many things for LGBT people and ultimately, it’s not a straight man’s story to tell.

This somewhat myopic view of history spells bad things for the film’s representation of queer people. The only LGBT character of any significance is transgender woman Rayon, who is lumped with a typically tragic arc as an AIDS patient and a drug addict. The efforts of activists across the country are completely ignored; Ron Woodroof takes a cursory glance at a TV news story and then looks away. The film paints the FDA as the big bad guys, but fails to address the political context at the time that made them so. Shouldn’t a film about a disease that absolutely decimated a minority group have more than one queer character with screentime?

It’s a terrible shame that Dallas Buyers Club is riddled with these problems, as it is, overall, an extremely solid film. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are both absolutely outstanding; both deliver career best, utterly transformative performances, worthy for all of the praise they’ve been receiving and then some. Jennifer Garner has decidedly less to do in a role that could have been played by just about anyone, but her performance is good enough, if not all that noticeable amongst the work of McConaughey and Leto. It’s a shame that the outstanding performances are servicing a film that’s arguably picked the wrong characters.

Dallas Buyers Club has been receiving plenty of awards season praise – it’s currently up for six Academy Awards – and it’s certainly an excellent film in technical terms. It’s just incredibly disappointing that it finds itself sharing a rather narrow minded viewpoint of an extremely loaded time period. There are incredible stories to be found within the HIV/AIDS crisis, and Ron Woodroof’s story is a great one – just maybe not the story we should have heard.


Dallas Buyers Club was released in Australian cinemas today.


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