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The Trouble With Representing HIV/AIDS In The Very Troublesome 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | /Bent January 16, 2014 at 11:15AM

I'll admit that I walked into "Dallas Buyers Club" looking for trouble. How couldn't I? One of a small handful of American cinematic representations about the onset of the AIDS in the 1980s, any film that tries to tackle a controversially neglected, remarkably devastating chapter in history is set to be challenged when it comes to how it represents it. Especially when the people tackling it -- and being heroized within it -- do not embody the group of people who were most ravaged by AIDS.
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I fully expected his evolution from this point forward would work toward making Woodroof becoming worthy of the heroic status the film is clearly giving him. That his intentions for selling the drugs would appear less selfish (at first he's clearly doing it for the money, even refusing a poor young gay kid drugs because he doesn't have the money) and that he himself would learn to love the gays and rid himself of his rampant homophobia. But by the film's end, it's not entirely clear that either evolution fully takes place.  It also becomes increasingly clear that the film itself is offering a pretty questionable representation of the few actual queer characters it actually gives more than one line of dialogue.

"Dallas Buyers Club"
"Dallas Buyers Club"

The most prominent example of such is also the main catalyst for whatever progress Woodroof does make in reducing his homophobia: Rayon, a trans-female played by Jared Leto. Woodroof meets Rayon when they are sharing a hospital room, and reluctantly allows her (though the film consistently has other characters refer to Rayon as "him" or "he," which is perhaps simply a sign of those times and not as questionable as it seems) to massage a cramp in his leg -- the first sign of Woodroof's changing tune. Then when Woodroof starts trying to sell drugs to the gay community and is repeatedly shut down, he goes to Rayon for help. Initially offering a 5% cut, Rayon gets him to up it to 25% after saying that she can take his homophobic insults, but not a shitty deal.

From that point forward, Rayon becomes Woodroof's right-hand gal, helping him manage the buyers club and giving him an opportunity to actually get to know a queer person. The film gives us a scene that is obviously intended to express the resulting progress when the two are shopping in a grocery store and Woodroof -- himself now stigmatized from the disease and in large part ousted from the social group he was a part of before his diagnosis -- defends Rayon when one his former friends calls harasses her, demanding that he apologize and shake her hand. It all comes across a little too transparent, and by this point Woodroof's acceptance of Rayon seems to be born out of desperation than out of compassion. She's almost all he has left, and his own derogatory remarks -- though now said with an underlying affection of sorts -- continue.

Worse is the film's depiction of Rayon herself. Part an issue of the film's simplistic screenplay and part of Leto's performance, Rayon rarely extends beyond caricature. We never find out much about her beyond her relationship to Woodroof, and though she has a boyfriend that is present in many of the film's scenes, we never even find out his name. The one scene that gives us insight into Rayon's life beyond Ron Woodroof is when she goes to her monstrous, wealthy father to beg for money. He passive aggressively thanks her for dressing like a man before muttering "god help me." And Rayon's response is either the film's best or worst line, I can't decide: "He already has. I have AIDS."

Dallas Buyers Club

The fact that Rayon gives all the money she gets from her father (through a truly humiliating context) to Woodroof as a thank you continues the film's representation of her as weak.  Why wouldn't Rayon use that money to help herself? And why is Woodroof even worthy of such a gift? Because he learned to tolerate her? And successfully used her to help his own business venture get off the ground? "Dallas Buyers Club" consistently lionizes Ron Woodroof without really giving us a reason to feel like he deserves it.  Rayon, meanwhile, is continuously victimized (a Hollywood tradition for queer characters, but silly me for thinking this would be an exception), largely through her inability to overcome a drug addiction that eventually leads to her death (the screenplay even gives Leto the line "I don't want to die!" to hysterically mumble in its final scenes). Woodroof is clearly a drug addict too (not to mention an alcoholic and a sex addict), and also struggles with overcoming it. But "Dallas Buyers" portrays his struggle with much less judgement than Rayon's, and ultimately blames her death on her drug addiction (explicitly via a line by the doctor played by Jennifer Garner -- herself a problematic character I won't even bother getting into).

In the end, Ron Woodroof also dies. But we learn about this in the film's credits, and not onscreen. His death is suggested as an achievement in survival, given he outlasted his diagnosis by six years. He also ends his presence in the film off in typical heroic style, being cheered on by a group of nameless gays and lesbians when returns home from a (largely failed) legal battle in California against the FDA. But Ron Woodroof is not a hero. Ron Woodroof was just a guy that -- like countless others at that time -- got creative so that he could survive. It's impressive, but is it really worthy of becoming one of just a handful of films that represent this harrowing time in American history? No, it never was. But worse is that "Dallas Buyers Club" is not a very good movie on top of that. With lazy and uninspired direction from Vallée and a cookie-cutter screenplay from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, "Dallas Buyers Club" completely fails to portray the magnitude of the situation at hand (having an anti-Reagan poster out of focus in the background isn't going to cut it). And as a result, you don't end up caring much about what's up on that screen. Even if it never should have been up there to begin with.