I’m not a huge follower of film: I can count on one hand the number of films I’ve seen this year in theaters, and on half a hand the number of films I truly enjoyed. Dallas Buyers Club fit both of those categories, though, and then some. The film—directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner—was based on the true story of Ron Woodruff, a man who lived with AIDS and fought to bring new drugs stateside at the height of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the 80’s.
Without giving too much away, I’ll give you this: the story will definitely move you to tears. Both McConaughey and Leto were method actors for the film, and both shrank down to skeletal proportions to fulfill their roles. Leto plays Rayon, a transgender woman who McConaughey’s character, Woodruff, meets in the hospital. The two form an unlikely friendship and fight together to serve a community that the rest of America cast aside.
I was born in 1990, so I have next to no context for how devastating the HIV and AIDS epidemic was. I understand that a lot has changed since then, and that people who are diagnosed with HIV or AIDS are, for the most part, able to thrive if they can afford quality medication and have a good doctor in their corner. There are two unfortunate truths that came to mind when watching the film, though: for one, an HIV or AIDS diagnosis still comes with stigma—you could hear it in the audience’s uncomfortable laughter at the screen when they didn’t know how to feel about Woodruff’s diagnosis; and two, we haven’t made much progress when it comes to recognizing and respecting trans* characters in film, which translates pretty directly to how our society views trans* individuals.
I can’t speak for the trans* community by any means, but I do want to address the controversy surrounding the casting of Jared Leto, a straight man, to play a transgender woman. There are arguments on both sides of the aisles: some have heralded Leto for playing a transwoman with grace; others claim that it isn’t a step forward by any means and that the film should have cast a trans actress to play the role.
I fall in the “latter” camp, but I will throw Leto a bone: the director told the New York Times in an interview that Leto dedicated himself to the character and played—and dressed as—Rayon both on and off set to give her character real depth; Leto did in-depth research; and in interviews about the film, Leto has treated Rayon and the trans* community with dignity, respect and a voice to combat misinformation and misgendering. Knowing these things before I saw the film made me less apprehensive about seeing a man playing a trans character.
It was also very encouraging to know that the Dallas Buyers Club soundtrack partnered with (RED) The Global Fund, which combats HIV and AIDS globally, to donate forty cents of each album sale to the foundation.
The film isn’t necessarily technically stunning, nor is the flow of time clearly marked or the dialogue outstanding: what made Dallas Buyers Club a winner for me was both the storyline and the incredible acting from McConaughey and Leto. I encourage you to see it for yourself, but with a grain of salt.