What It's About: Electrician by day, rodeo cowboy by night and Texas-sized jerk most of the time, Ron Woodroof (Oscar-nominated Matthew McConaughey) discovers he's contracted AIDS—back in 1985, when the disease was a swift death sentence and to be thought of as gay was almost as bad. Ron's nearly as horrified to be stigmatized as queer as he is of the disease itself. He's ostracized by his drinking buddies and, at a time when he could most use some moral support, he's left almost alone. In his desperation to conquer AIDS and prolong his life, Ron goes outside the medical establishment to find drugs that actually work. He forms an unlikely business partnership with transgendered Rayon (Oscar-nominated Jared Leto) and begins selling his drugs and vitamins to Dallas' needy AIDS cases—most of whom are the gay men Ron would've shunned before.
Some Thoughts: In addition to AIDS, Dallas Buyers Club gives us two sweeping villains—the medical establishment and homophobia—and many Christians will be deeply discomforted by this film for obvious reasons. For those who believe that homosexuality is a sin, Dallas' activist stance will be deeply problematic. And that’s beside the film's profanity (which is pervasive) and sex (which can be graphic). Plugged In gave the film just one-half “plug,” which isn’t good.
But if we set aside the content and look at the movie's form—particularly the character arc of its prime protagonist—and we see a movie that looks, believe it or not, surprisingly evangelical, even though God’s not mentioned once.
For anyone who's been in the sometimes-strange evangelical subculture for any length of time, they'll recognize Ron's story for what it is: A testimony. We're familiar with the pattern: "I was lost," someone might say while standing on the church stage. "I gambled, drank, and cheated. I cavorted with women of ill-repute. I stole money from my own grandmother. I didn't care for anyone but me." The more horrific the sins, the better. (My own paltry "testimony" stories are so lame that I dread anyone asking me about them. When you get baptized at 7, unfortunately, you find your biggest sins lie ahead.)
Ron did most of that: The smoking, the cheating, the sneaking around—he was a textbook sinner. And while he might not have taken money from his grandmother, he was unquestionably lost.
But then, something happened that changed his life.
In the testimonies I've heard, they only change their ways when they've hit rock-bottom—often a brush with death. And it makes for a better story if that brush is directly connected, somehow, to their sinning. They're painfully confronted with their squandered lives and bankrupt worldview. "I knew right then," they'll say, "I needed to change. I needed to turn my life around. Give it to something better."
Ron's own crisis is contracted directly through his debauched, dead-end lifestyle. He gets AIDS through sex with (as might've been said in a 1920s Methodist pamphlet) "loose women" and, when doctors say he has just a month to live, he knows he has to do something drastic.
"Let me give y'all a little news flash," he says. "There ain't nothin' out there that can kill f---in' Ron Woodroof in 30 days."
That's bravado and he knows it. For a while, he takes stolen drugs without changing his lifestyle—chasing the meds with beer and liquor. When that supply is cut off, he's forced to drive to Mexico—ominously taking a gun for company. And he breaks down in the car, sobbing and screaming.
But shortly thereafter with a kindly doctor in Mexico, he finds new answers. He discovers new solace. He's given, in a way, new life. And he turns the car—and his ways—around and heads toward home.
Like a missionary or inner-city pastor, he begins his work, turning his attention to the shunned and sick—helping them find the life that he found. He cares for society's then-untouchables, giving hope to the hopeless and grace to those who need it most. He serves as an angry prophet, too—cursing (quite literally) the powers that be and imploring one and all that there's a better way.
It's here where the comparisons break down a bit. Woodroof's no saint, and he often charges heavily for his help, the sort of aid that Christian pastors and workers often give for free. This is not, we must re-emphasize, not a Christian mirror any more than it's a Christian movie. Indeed, religion, I don't think, is mentioned at all.
And that itself makes me wonder … where was the Church in those days, in the late 1980s when gays and lesbians had little clout and when a mysterious disease was killing so many? How many people of faith were helping those in such great need? How many stood on the sidelines, afraid? How many called AIDS a moral judgment? It's a serious question, because I simply don't know. I'm sure there were some Christians who helped. I know there are some who didn't. But maybe we didn't do all that we should've.
And I wonder … if more Christians had shown more of God's grace and love in that time to people sorely in need of both, would today's conversations over gay rights sound different today? Even in the midst of the strong and real disagreements between these two communities, could we have found a little more space to discuss these disagreements more rationally, more gently? As friends? As God's holy creations?
What the Bible Says:
"‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’"
"For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’"
"Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you."