Dallas Buyers Club ½

It's easy, if one only ever has to suffer a few times a year the no-budget, no-talent indies dumped on one-week NY runs and burned onto screener discs, to have a charmed view of what constitutes a bad film. Truth be told, with the number of films produced domestically exploding in recent years thanks to mass proliferation of acceptable-quality, cheap DV, it's a good bet that the vast majority of American movies made each year now consist of films made by people with little to no experience, often no real ambition or even point of view, and no discernible talent. Even those of us who only ever see about five or six of these a year are confronted with stunted youth narratives, shameless grabs at the pile of easy money dangled in front of viral horror hits, and tough-guy dialogue that aims for Tarantino replication but can't even ape Kevin Smith.

But for God's sake, just because there are people out there maxing out credit cards and tricking the gullible into being "stars" through Craigslist doesn't mean that rank, regressive bullshit like DALLAS BUYERS CLUB should be politely ignored or, worse, apologized for because it has its heart in the right place. This isn't a film made by a couple of schmucks who miraculously cobbled together enough cash and patience to waste space on a hard drive but a studio-backed, star-studded, endlessly campaigned-for white elephant that answers an emphatic "Yes" to that eternal question, "Wow, great job, wanna cookie?"

There is disagreement as to whether the real Ron Woodroof was a straight homophobe or a comfortable bisexual, but even if you give the writers the benefit of the doubt, the film's Ron is such a portrait of vicious homophobia and self-serving greed that the homophobic rhetoric of AIDS being God's punishment to gays is flipped to be a kind of karmic reckoning for Ron's own intolerance. One lacks the pervasively harmful social impact of the other, but it as useless a means through which to view the disease, as is the way that the film then hinges on AIDS as a means of teaching Ron just a few Important Lessons.

McConaughey's don't-call-it-a-comeback of the last five or so years has been predicated on a reminder of the credibility his affable, unconcerned nature lends his roles. As a well-meaning but incompetent agent, a male-stripper Diaghilev, the Virgil who leads Belfort's Dante through the gates of Hell, McConaughey projects enough earnestness, even as the douchebag stockbroker, to put you at ease. He's still got edge in those parts, which both offsets and bolsters how entrancing he can be. This weight-dropping, grandstanding role is the sort of thing that proves a facile kind of "range" while offering nothing of the tactile, relatable humanity that the actor can otherwise conjure on cue.

DBC tsks tsks at Ron's initial homophobia but eventually plays on McConaughey's dead-ended charisma and telegraphed moments of moral epiphany to turn him into a hero that drastically simplifies a complex truth. The Dallas Buyers Club of the film's title is not an easy thing to root for: circumventing doctors who themselves betrayed prejudices and clinical coldness in treating predominantly homosexual sufferers, but also charging for a healthy profit in doling out unapproved meds. There was something deeply troubling to me in the end when some of the people Ron viciously, openly ripped off welcome him back from a lawsuit like their savior. But then, the movie in general is shot in these broad emotional, judgmental tones, the tedious stylistic tics like a shellshock tone in the audio track when Ron loses focus, or how the frame is steeped in compressed horror and disgust when Ron's friends turn on him and accuse him of being gay. That aesthetic of outrage, incidentally, never extends to the lives of the actual gay characters in the film's periphery, people facing a lot worse than the mere nasty words of a few hick pals, including being bilked by cynical hustlers like Ron.

Nothing in this shit show is half so offensive as Rayon, though. I had braced myself for this performance, finding Jared Leto to be a spectacularly awful, self-absorbed actor at the best of times. Then there's the sheer effrontery of his awards tour, in which he has made a mockery of his character even as he played up his own sacrifice for getting waxed or suggesting that his aggressively one-note performance, in which every scene is played as if meant for the Oscar show reel, gave him anything like an understanding of what trans* women go through each day. Leto understands that transgender people often have a vivacious, unbowed attitude but betrays no comprehension of the hard-won strength and confidence that had to be built up to reach that point. (I wish I had a copy of Paul Morriseey's TRASH on me, to watch an actual trans* woman living with an unrepentant dignity that Leto cannot communicate without voguing.)

If I am not mistaken (I don't remember early on because I hadn't noticed the trend yet), not one single use of pronouns to refer to Rayon ever calls her "she" or "her." I do not think, on the face of it, that this is a show of transphobia; it could, after all, be a reflection of how even those who think themselves allies either forget or simply don't care to adjust accordingly to trans* people's identities. But DBC continues misgendering even in moments clearly meant to exalt friends like Ron or the sympathetic Dr. Saks (Jennifer Garner, looking at any moment like she might burst out into an anti-vaccinate rant) for feeling bad about Rayon, and the cast's own misgendering of the character in press tours speaks volumes. Dan Schindel on Twitter mentioned that if he hadn't known from hearing about the character that she was trans, the reduction of Rayon to her attire and the wrong pronouns would have led him to believe she was a transvestite, not a trans* woman, and it's true that however much the filmmakers talked to trans* AIDS patients, the finished product seems to think a thin difference separates the two.

It's disingenuous to be shocked that Hollywood treats marginal figures in such a way; a fundamental aspect of its history is its reinforcing of norms and the gradual, usually grudging acquiescence to norms already altered in other parts of society. But this is disgraceful moviemaking, designed to reaffirm Hollywood's predisposition toward providing lip-service support to minority groups while doubling down on its perpetuation of types. In the end, Rayon exists solely to facilitate Ron's spirit quest, her own tragically short life worthy only for helping Ron to see the error of his ways. In that respect, this is the closest the film ever comes to treating her the way a Hollywood movie treats any other woman.