Dallas Buyers Club is a marvel of filmmaking. The ultra low-key documentary shooting style should make this film feel small and insignificant, but it doesn’t. Instead it feels grand and full of life in a way that very few movies manage to capture. The directorial style helps of course to bring an urgent sense of intimacy to the story, but the credit belongs to the writers and the actors. No other movie I’ve seen this year has flown by so quickly or absorbed me quite so much into a world that in no way looks like a world I want to enter. Most people wouldn’t want to see a movie about dying people that takes place in dimly lit hospitals and features the main character coughing up blood half of the time, I mean, it’s just… that’s usually not why we go to the movies. I want to mention this however, because this movie is luminous.
Personally, I think this is a phenomenal film. The writing is delightfully efficient, never repeating itself, full of strikingly real characters and dialogue. The low-budget constrictions are taken advantage of to create a world that feels raw and immediate, never for a moment hitting a false note that could pull the audience out of the drama. The acting is on fire. I laughed, I cried, I was stuck in my chair for two hours without moving and when it ended I honestly didn’t think more than 20 minutes had gone by. I don’t get to say that very often.
If you don’t know the story, it’s pretty simple. Ron Woodroof was diagnosed with AIDS, decided the treatment was killing him, sought other treatments that were not FDA approved, and then started smuggling and selling those treatments, finding more and more ways to circumvent the laws that were attempting to stop him. I don’t want to go over the plot too much so if you haven’t seen it, don’t worry, it’s quite straightforward and you won’t need to to understand what I’m saying. What I do want to talk about are some of the politics of its reception.
I’m connected to many different social circles both in my every day life and in my online life. I’ve got blogs, accounts, friends, etc. that connect me to as many different opinions as I can imagine that there are, and I try find new ones on a regular basis. I’m not trying to be showy, I just want to establish that I’ve given this a lot of thought because I’ve been exposed to other people’s perspectives. After all, my own perspective is pretty limited.
Before I had seen this film, I had heard a lot about it. I’d heard a lot of angry things about it. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about the casting, in particular. Now normally I wouldn’t pay much attention to something like this because, well, I don’t really care too much about who was cast in what movie, I’d rather focus on other aspects, but this time the focus was on the sexual politics of the film. According to many people, Woodroof was gay, or at least bisexual, and openly so. Since he is no longer alive it is hard to fact-check that, but that’s not actually the point. In the film, Woodroof begins as aggressively heterosexual and extremely homophobic. Offensively homophobic. So homophobic that you actually wonder if he’s secretly gay and hates himself for it – not quite over-the-top, but enough to make you, in this age, question him. So why the change? Why depict a gay man as straight? This question has enraged the internet, possibly some of my readers, and it is a very valid question. I’d like to discuss it because I think it is really important to understand both sides of the argument in this case.
This should be obvious, but writing Woodroof as aggressively homophobic creates more conflict. This is, unfortunately, a facet of screenwriting that needs to be addressed. No movie can ever be absolutely true to life or it would be boring as all hell. The very nature of telling a story is, in itself, an act of lying, so when one is trying to tell the story of Ron Woodroof, one must take certain liberties with the story of his life. Now, should these liberties be to remove his sexual orientation? On one side, yes, if it creates conflict.
On the other side, perhaps no. By making Woodroof straight, they make him “normal.” The problem isn’t that he’s straight, lots of people are straight, the problem is that now he is “default.” And this is a valid concern, something that should be addressed. But I’m not convinced yet, that it’s enough of a reason to hate the film. Another aspect of the writing is the character arc of Woodroof, which I thought was handled exceptionally well in the slow, gradual process of having him accept the gay population. In coming to terms with his illness and all that it associates him with, Ron’s slow process of transformation is visually shown in his relationship with Rayan in several particularly touching scenes. If Woodroof ends up the film closer to the real life Ron than he did at the beginning, isn’t that more “true to life” than if he had remained a carbon copy, honest but one-dimensional?
So I can see why people are upset, but I also think the film captured something very important about humanity itself.
Let’s talk about Rayan – played by Jared Leto. Rayan is a transgender woman played by a very cis-gender man. Now, this one is more tricky. Does Leto do a good job? Yes, he does, he really really does. Okay? Let’s get that straight first, Leto is fantastic in the role, finding just the right balance in his performance to stay away from self-parody on either side of the scale. He doesn’t do too much and he doesn’t do too little and looking at the role it would be very easy for someone to play it wrong.
Could an actual transgender actor have done as good as or a better job than Leto? Yes, absolutely.
So again, taken from the internet, why does a straight man get to play the role of a transgender woman?
Well, the answer is… because he did. It sucks, I know. Somebody else should get a fair shot. But the truth of the matter is, it’s not Leto’s fault. Not really. He’s gotten a lot of flack for talking about how he’s been given the chance to see the world through someone else’s shoes – as though this is somehow a bad thing. Yes, he doesn’t really know what it’s like to be transgender, that is true. But none of us know what it’s like to be anything other than exactly what we are. This is where our sense of empathy comes in, it’s why we need stories. Human experiences are universal as they are specific, which is the most bizarre and amazing aspect of being a person. My point is, it’s not really Leto’s fault that he got cast. He does do phenomenal work. And the point isn’t for him to experience “what it’s like” – the point is to portray a character.
So we’re left again with a bit of a conundrum. The movie features some incredible performances and breathtaking writing and filmmaking, but features a complex mess of political statements about sexuality and unfortunately none of those statements have too much to do with the movie itself. They take place in the real world, which is what makes it all so complicated.
I’d like to see people talk about this. Go see Dallas Buyers Club and then discuss it. Try not to get angry but if that’s what you feel you need to do, then by all means get angry (but please keep it civilized). I was thoroughly impressed with this film and I wouldn’t have given many of these things I’ve talked about a second thought if nobody had told them to me. I think it’s important to keep the discussion open. I’ll be here.