HIV-infected-cowboy movie can't quite buck Hollywood sentimentalism

Dallas Buyers Club

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Now Playing at the Charles Theatre

Wouldn't it be wonderful if a little adversity was all it took for assholes to become angels? Hollywood has a long tradition of advancing the notion that even the most flawed man can be transformed into a righteous crusader if exposed to the precise mix of personal tragedy and social injustice. Throw in a "based on a true story" slugline and that's all you need to prove the myth of the exceptional man.

This is why Schindler's List chronicled the horrors of the Holocaust through the eyes of an enlightened German, and why American History X confronted American racial violence through Edward Norton's reformed white supremacist. Movies like these tend to deify their protagonists, never investigating the complicated and often self-serving reasons for their change of heart. Instead, the films convince audiences that inside of every callous, self-centered prick is a noble altruist waiting for an opportunity to emerge: All it takes is a little girl in a red coat or an Aryan rapist in the prison shower. Worse, they suggest that these tainted moral warriors possess a unique ability to right the wrongs of society. This explains why Clint Eastwood's principled grouch was the only person in Gran Torino who could effectively counter the gang violence that tormented his Hmong neighbors.

For the first two-thirds of Dallas Buyers Club, Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée mostly sidesteps this kind of dramatic reductionism. When we first meet Ron Woodroof (a frighteningly gaunt Matthew McConaughey), he's backstage at a rodeo, snorting cocaine and screwing a pair of prostitutes. It's the 1980s, and though he's bone-thin and wracked with a horrible cough, it's inconceivable to this manliest of cowboys that he could contract HIV. When a doctor informs him that he's got full-blown AIDS, with a T-cell count in the single digits and a life expectancy of 30 days, his response is exactly what you'd expect.

"I ain't no faggot, motherfucker," Woodroof hisses at Dr. Saks (Jennifer Garner). "I don't even know no faggots."

Though a hard-partying racist and homophobe, Ron is not stupid. With the handwriting on the wall, he gets educated about the disease and discovers that his prescribed treatment, AZT, offers little hope for survival. This prompts Woodroof to venture into Mexico, where he finds success with experimental treatments; unfortunately, the drugs aren't approved in the U.S. Smelling both personal salvation and a unique business opportunity, he starts smuggling the unauthorized AIDS meds into Dallas.

But how does a casual bigot earn the trust of the local gay community? Enter Rayon (Jared Leto), a street-smart HIV-positive transgender junkie. Ron reluctantly takes her on as his business partner, oblivious to the fact that the virus threatening his life is also reshaping his worldview. What begins as a cynical survival and business tactic gradually becomes the kind of transformative personal quest that attracts Hollywood adaptations. Add to it the drama of Ron having to work around hostile FDA agents and their entrenched support of the pharmaceutical industry-leading him to create a members-only subscription service for afflicted clients-and you've got the makings of an Oscar-nominated drama.

Vallée initially keeps the sentimentalism at bay, opting for a rugged, matter-of-fact portrait of his highly flawed and accidental crusaders. Neither Ron nor Rayon is generous by nature, each angling for what serves their interests best. While the film's message of activism and tolerance is inevitable, it rarely compromises Woodroof's shrewd pragmatism when it comes to self-important posturing. Instead, it suggests that Ron's acceptance of the LGBT community is borne of daily interaction rather than some hackneyed life-changing epiphany. Better still, his unlikely friendship with self-destructive Rayon is presented as bristly and complicated. Both actors are in especially fine form, bringing their characters' complex relationship with illness to vivid life. (The less said of Garner's unnecessary and ineffectual doctor character, the better).

But as the movie clumsily enters its homestretch, the temptation to turn rebellious Ron into a heartstring-tugging, hetero hero of AIDS activism becomes too much for screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack to resist. For all the subtlety and substance given to its two leads, Dallas Buyers Club makes the unfortunate mistake of casting the gay community as anonymous extras in their own struggle (much as Spielberg did to the Jews in Schindler's List). You'll be hard-pressed to identify another homosexual character other than Rayon. Only Vallée's deft direction and insistent focus on the resolve of the film's outcasts keeps things grounded, reminding audiences that, sometimes, it is the desperate and despised who fight hardest to balance the scales of justice.

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