A quick glance at this year’s nominations for Best Picture at the Oscars tell you that this is one of the best years for cinema in recent memory, and one of the most varied – this is a field where a harrowing account of American slavery can rub shoulders with sci-fi space thrillers and black comedies about the excesses of the finance industry. It’s a year when box ticking Oscar bait movies that follow tried and tested narrative formulas have almost been entirely shut out – with one notable exception.
Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story (first Oscar-bait box ticked) of Ron Woodruff, here depicted as a homophobic arse, despite a bisexual real-life counterpart, who is given 30 days to live after being diagnosed with HIV. With no cures available on the American medical system, he makes a name for himself smuggling “alternative treatments” into the States from Mexico, Japan and everywhere in-between.
He then sells this back to the other victims of the disease, and as he learns that the LGBT community aren’t that different from him, realises it’s okay to exploit them for monetary gain, like the redneck Oscar Schindler.
Matthew McConnaughey’s central performance as Woodruff is probably the weakest since his big career comeback in Killer Joe two years ago. Following in the footsteps of many actors before him who have either lost weight (Christian Bale in The Machinist) or put on weight (Robert de Niro) in the hope of awards glory, his approach to method acting overshadows the fact that he doesn’t break any new ground with his performance – the exact opposite of every performance he’s given in the last two years, as well as being only a pale imitation of the aforementioned actors who gave vastly superior performances.
Because this is a Hollywood film all the AIDS sufferers other than Woodruff are ridiculous gay stereotypes, culminating in a laughably clichéd scene at a gay club that looks like a shot for shot remake of a Village People video, outfits and all. Whereas this Oscar season’s best film, 12 Years a Slave, uses gritty realism to show the audience the full horrors of its subject matter, Dallas Buyers Club frequently resorts to stereotypes or ill-fitting comedic moments (Woodruff having a wank over a picture of Mark Bolan, thinking he’s a woman) that exposes just how weak it is when approaching the serious nature of the HIV/AIDS virus.
I was left thinking about the “white people solve racism” Oscar bait movies of previous years, most notably The Help, and how they resort to comedic moments and stereotypes to avoid making any significant statement on the central issue, which means that Dallas Buyers Club can now be lumped in with them as a “homophobic people solve homophobia” movie, due to its similar cluelessness as to how to address such a dark subject matter whilst still providing popcorn entertainment.
Four other best picture nominees this year are all based on true stories (12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street, while American Hustle also opens by telling us that “some of this happened”). These are all successful in that they manage to balance out the grim truths of their subject matter with solid entertainment, be they hard hitting Slavery drama or Somali pirate thrillers. The film to which Dallas compares to the most is Philomena; without wanting to spoil the revelations of that film, all I’m going to say is it has a far better view of how to approach the issue of AIDS without toning down its subject matter for a mainstream audience.