“I’m a rodeo!”
Every movie tells its story using symbols. At the very least a movie will invoke cultural symbols and tropes, but a more attentive filmmaker will build new symbols specifically tailored to the story through repetition. These symbols embody the underlying themes of a movie and will shape the attentive viewer to subtle shifts while giving weight to the narrative. To simplify: a symbol is any word, phrase, event or object that gains meaning through repetition. One ready example are the names in Inception: there is a theme of mazes, spiderwebs, weaving and dreams hinted at in the names of Ariadne (mistress of the labyrinth), Cobb (meaning spider, hence cobweb), Saito (Japanese for Website), and Yusef (see Joseph the Dream Interpreter of the Bible). Any time an object reappears or an event or expression is repeated this is a clue to the viewer to pay attention.
In the Oscar nominated film Dallas Buyers Club, written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, the rodeo reappears three times and the protagonist of the film, Ron Woodroof, identifies himself with the rodeo lifestyle. There is some narrative signalling here, since the rodeo bookends the film as well as appears midway through, that requires examination.
The movie begins in medias rodeo, seeing a cowboy flailing atop a bull and hearing the roar of the crowd and the gutturals of illicit sex. Looking through the slats of a bull stall, as the rider is roughly tossed to the dirt, we see a grunting and heaving Ron Woodroof in carnal throes. There is a ringing in the air. Another woman snorts a line of coke and exchanges places with Woodroof’s partner, the animal thrusting resumes and the thrown rider gets stomped by the bull. The ringing grows louder. In the ring we see the cowboy dragged off by the rodeo clowns. Woodroof gasps and staggers, he braces himself. Something is wrong.