Although Jean-Marc Vallée directed one of my all-time favourite queer movies, C.R.A.Z.Y, he has now managed to deliver my perhaps least favourite. The biographic drama Dallas Buyers Club, which is based on a real story, recounts the late life events of AIDS patient Ron Woodroof. When he reacts badly to the trial drug AZT he begins to smuggle effective pharmaceutical drugs from Mexico to Texas and disseminates those to other AIDS patients.
I don’t blame Vallée – although the film is overlong, its direction is one of its redeeming features, along with a great performance by Matthew McConaughey (also the highlight of the otherwise dull Magic Mike, and excellent in both Mud and Killer Joe). Jennifer Garner as the rightous Dr. Saks and Jared Leto, who plays the HIV-positive transgender woman Rayon, meanwhile, do their best in two-dimensional roles.
It’s the screenplay that’s the real problem. First of all, let’s look at the choice to portray Woodroof as a rampantly straight bigot, despite assertions by his long-time friend William Waybourn and his real-life doctor Stephen Pounder (as opposed to the fictional Dr. Saks) that not only did he never display any homophobia to either of them, he may well not have been straight. Thus, his use of “faggot” and other homophobic slurs throughout the first half of the movie is entirely unnecessary.
We saw blatant bi erasure last year, too, in Saving Mr Banks, but at least that film didn’t rewrite history to the extent that it had P. L. Travers stomping around shagging every man she came into contact with and calling people “dykes”.
The script for Dallas Buyers Club had been knocking around since the 90s, which is entirely unsurprising, since it follows pretty much exactly the Philadelphia story arc: the protagonist, a straight man, starts off homophobic, but gradually learns the error of his ways (kind of). It was always a problematic trope, but in 2014 it’s beyond outdated. It’s like if Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner had been made in the early nineties.
Another problem is Dr. Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner. Making Woodroof’s doctor female might seem like a progressive choice, but she only exists to reaffirm once again the main character’s (quite possibly fictional) heterosexuality, to make puppy eyes after him from the first moment she meets him, despite his being a rude, sexist, bigoted redneck (one has to wonder why she’s so fascinated by him). Within the story, she is also brought to oppose the use of ineffective AZT in order to justify the DBC’s smuggling of unapproved drugs into the country, many of which were, in fact, useless or worse than useless.
Finally, and, for me, most infuriatingly, there’s Jared Leto’s Rayon. While watching the movie, I had assumed she was based on a real person, and so I forgave certain things – her name (a joke about synthetic fibres? Really?); the fact that she was fridged in order for the straight characters to have a good cry (a fictional straight character and a fictionally-straight character, that is); her drug addiction. Despite this, I still had a problem with the fact that she was consistently misgendered by the other characters throughout the movie, and that a cisgender man had been cast to play her (as sensitively as Leto attempts to play the terribly-written character). But knowing that she was created from whole (synthetic) cloth, I find the treatment of her character unforgivable.
If you’re interested in narratives about the AIDS crisis, I strongly suggest that you instead watch Angels in America, which manages to prominently feature gay characters, a black character and well-written women, in addition to having been created by an actual gay man. If you’re interested in a zany movie about a gay hustler, which also deals with AIDS, I propose the underrated I Love You, Phillip Morris. If you want to watch a great queer movie directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, check out C.R.A.Z.Y., and only, only watch Dallas Buyers Club if you want to be infuriated, or if you desperately want to feel as though you’ve travelled back in time to the early nineties.
The picture was taken from the movie by Jean-Marc Vallée, who holds the copyright.