Sunday, 27 April 2014

Celebrating Great Writing 2: Dallas Buyers’ Club and Showing, Not Telling a Character’s Change of Heart

Ron Woodroof's diagnosis with AIDS, thanks to

Too often when a character in a drama has a big change of heart, it is writ large in ‘I’m not going to take it any more!’ type declarations. What I really appreciated when I saw Dallas Buyer’s Club recently, was how the character arc of hero Ron Woodroof is developed in a way that is subtly shown, not shouted from the rooftops. Writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack seem to have trusted the viewer to understand the character’s transformation without him bursting out with ‘I’ve changed, I’m not like that any more!’ lines, or demonstrating the change in obvious, dramatic set pieces.

At the start of the action, in 1985, Ron Woodroof is a heavy-drinking rodeo cowboy, enthusiastically heterosexual and ‘backs against the wall’ homophobic. After an accident, he is told he has AIDS at a time when, with this diagnosis, if you weren’t an intravenous drug user, it was assumed you were gay. Woodroof goes through a phase of furious, raging denial until research reveals that unprotected sex has infected him. Having been given thirty days to live, he discovers that the drugs being trialled in the US are not as effective as those available for a price in Mexico, and so he begins to import unlicensed drugs and sell them on the streets to AIDS victims.

Thanks to

It is the change in Ron’s attitude to the gay community that is so impressively portrayed. To begin with, any approach by a gay man is met with disgust and angry rejection. Next, Ron is sent packing by his own former community, the rodeo crowd, who assume he is secretly gay and are terrified of catching AIDS. As he sets up the Mexico trail of experimental drug importation, it is subtly shown, though never laboured, that Ron is isolated at this most vulnerable time of his life. Visiting gay bars in order to sell his product, his physical demeanour and facial expressions reveal the change, as revulsion and fear turn gradually to bemused acceptance.  Rarely has an actor’s face shown a transformation so effectively. Great acting helps, of course, and Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar for his portrayal of Ron. However, great writing must also be credited, and what’s refreshing about Dallas Buyers’ Club is the way the writers trust not only the actor to deliver the character’s change, but the viewers to understand it, without Ron needing to say, ‘I’m lonely! Everyone else has rejected me. These guys are weird, but they accept me. We’re in the same boat. Why shouldn’t I accept them..?’
Thanks to

I have often felt slightly confused by the advice to writers to ‘show, not tell’, but here’s a superb example of the craft well executed, to instruct us all.

Have you been blown away by the writing of a film or TV character? Have you had any ‘light-bulb’ moments when you realised what showing, not telling really means? Any film recommendations for me? Leave a comment or a line on Facebook!

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