I’ve long been of the opinion that Matthew McConaughey is one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors. Variously dismissed as a dim-witted pretty-boy or a shirtless, bongo-playing surfer – images that haven’t been helped by a string of poor romantic comedies – he has recently built an impressive array of performances in smaller dramas. With Dallas Buyers Club, he gives one of the best of the year, coupled with another by the equally underrated Jared Leto.
Based on true events, here McConaughey plays a character with an even more irredeemable reputation than his own, at least at first. Ron Woodroof is a free-wheeling cowboy in 1985 Dallas who works as an oil field electrician when he’s not making book on the rodeo, snorting drugs or having sex with anything female. Such a lifestyle is not without cost, though, and after an industrial accident he wakes up in the hospital to troubling news – his blood has tested positive for HIV.
Like Woodroof himself, his associates are all diehard homophobes, and their assumption that he must be gay doesn’t do much for his support system – soon he’s facing his disease all by himself. Diving into the scientific research, he learns about experimental drug treatments, and puts his hustling skills to work for meds instead of cash. Then he meets the transgendered Rayon (Leto), a fellow sufferer who is selling a portion of her medication from an AZT drug trial to friends who couldn’t get in. Picking up on the idea, Woodroof is soon importing drugs from Mexico and other places, and to get around legal issues with US Customs, he and Rayon set up a subscription club for people looking for alternative treatments.
Dallas Buyers Club is a transformational story, of how Woodroof moves from profiteering and motivated self-interest to unexpected compassion and heroism. It’s hardly a happy subject, but the deft direction by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée and a swift-moving script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack command attention, and there is a surprising amount of lightness in various scenes.
Of course, none of this works at all without a charismatic actor at its heart, and McConaughey fits perfectly. His dedication to the role is absolute – having lost nearly 40 pounds to portray the physical symptoms, he’s also unafraid to portray the negative aspects of Woodroof’s personality, all the better to show us the man’s redemption. Equally flawless is Jared Leto in a smaller but no less significant role. Rayon is a far more complex character than usually surfaces in films like this, and Leto’s performance is equal to the task, avoiding stereotype or caricature. Jennifer Garner and Steve Zahn also contribute, even if their parts are mostly underwritten.
As the annual film awards season begins kicking into high gear, Dallas Buyers Club is deservedly finding itself on many nomination lists due to strong performances, direction and story. Even if you don’t follow these things, it should be on your list of must-see movies this year.
Tags: movie review