After the emergence of effective treatments for HIV in the mid-1990s, the illness essentially disappeared from the mainstream media, apart from the occasional report about Africa. Its presence in cinema died down as well, except in the nonfiction realm. Now that the era when an HIV-positive status was a quick, automatic death sentence is almost a generation away, it's been left to documentaries like David France's How to Survive a Plague to explore the history of AIDS activism, while Joaquim Pinto's What Now? Remind Me examines what it's like to live with HIV right now. By contrast, Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club is the first mainstream dramatic film in 20 years whose protagonist has AIDS.
The fact-based Dallas Buyers Club opens in 1986, as Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) reads an article about Rock Hudson's death from AIDS. After an accident at work, Ron wakes up in the hospital. He learns that he's HIV-positive and is told he has only 30 days to live. Determined to cheat death, he starts partying, then hunts down a supply of the then-experimental medicine AZT. Finding it horribly toxic, he searches overseas for safer and more effective treatments. Because they're not approved by the FDA, he has to smuggle them by car or plane. He teams up with the transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto) and sells them to AIDS patients in Dallas.
In some respects, Dallas Buyers Club is actually a retreat from Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia. For all Philadelphia's compromises, at least it put a gay man at center stage. Ron is not only a straight white man, he's a vocal homophobe. In fact, the film's very first line of dialogue manages to include the word "cocksucker." Although he comes to spend more time with LGBT people, and the slurs fly out of his mouth far less frequently. Dallas Buyers Club comes dangerously close to making them part of his good ol' boy persona, like a taste for tequila and the rodeo. Consequently, when it tries to show him learning to outgrow his prejudices, as in a scene in a grocery store where he defends Rayon (while still calling her "him"), it feels like an afterschool special.
But in other areas, Dallas Buyers Club goes much further than Philadelphia and has much more in common with a film like How to Survive a Plague. ACT UP is rarely alluded to directly; all the same, Ron's work expanding access to experimental treatments for AIDS patients is one of the things for which they fought. One fact emphasized by How to Survive a Plague is that ACT UP members' activism stemmed from a desire to save their own lives. Ron may be a capitalist, but he tests all the drugs he sells on himself — in one case, with near-fatal results. Hie's trying to save his own life too.
American culture is hardly free from homophobia, but it feels like we've turned a corner when 50 Cent goes from rapping about "faggots" dragging him down on "In Da Club" to mentoring a transgender teen on a reality show. Dallas Buyers Club feels like a symptom of this shift. It works as a buddy movie of sorts, as well as a story of one man heroically defying the system, but it's never as enlightened as it thinks it is. For that, it would need to give Rayon a life beyond being the transgender equivalent of a Magic Negro, then a sad junkie rejected by her father. A taste for '70s glam rockers T. Rex alone doesn't do it. But one can't expect a single film to tell the story of how AIDS affected America. Sadly, it'll probably be 2033 before Hollywood ventures to make another one.