Dallas Buyers Club: aka The Revenge of McConaughey

3 out of 4 stars

HIV/AIDS is one of the toughest subjects to crack in entertainment, an unfortunate truth that nonetheless has managed to keep potentially groundbreaking films from happening.

The “downer” stigma attached to the topic, not to mention the glacially increasing interest in homosexuality as a topic itself, has frightened most major production studios into taking safer fare instead.  Longtime Companion is arguably the genesis of a series of wide-distribution films that would make the subject into a film genre in and of itself, followed up shortly by pieces like And the Band Played On and Philadelphia.

images (1)Like these pieces, Dallas Buyers Club tackles the subject head on, giving a victim’s view of the medical officers’ struggle as well as that of the victims themselves.  Yet the difference here is the victime we get this view from: a heterosexual with a very different grasp on his situation. Compared to the previously mentioned films, this piece perhaps does fall into the same traps of simplified storytelling and broad character portraits.  Yet the undeniably fascinating, fact-based story holds your attention, and, even if that doesn’t, the star turn of the year most definitely will.

 Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is an electrician and rodeo cowboy in 1985 Dallas, TX who has his fair share of vices (drugs, alcohol, women, and so on).  A work accident brings Ron to the hospital, where he is told by doctors (the always reliable Denis O’Hare and a committed, charismatic Jennifer Garner) that he has contracted HIV and has a month at most left.  Incredulous at first, Ron slowly comes to terms with this new reality and discovers dubious affairs involving the latest drug for HIV/AIDS infected patients: AZT.

The drug’s toxicity and unattainability force Ron to look to Mexico for alternatives, where he finds much less dangerous medications that inexplicably have not yet been approved by the FDA.  What follows are the remaining days of Ron’s life, as he and his business partner Rayon (Jared Leto), a drug addict drag queen suffering from AIDS, begin a black market buyers club that sells HIV medication-inclusive memberships, much to the chagrin of the FDA.

dallas-buyers-club-poster-570x844All due respect, I doubt that 15 years ago any of us would have believed that the dramatic actor to watch would be Matthew McConaughey.  The clearly talented actor became known as the go-to romcom leading man in his young, unexceptional career.  Then something of a miracle happened two years ago: McConaughey began taking great roles.  We saw a series of knockout performances, from The Lincoln Lawyer all the way to this year’s indie hit, Mud.  McConaughey has been on an undeniable roll as of late, but even his incredible work to date could not have prepared us for what he has brought to his latest role as Ron Woodroof.

Here we have one of the most unlikable antiheroes ever put on film and McConaughey practically dares us to root for him.  His raw, emotional performance is rooted underneath an unclassy, bigoted facade and one of the most chilling body distortions since Christian Bale in The Machinist (McConaughey lost 40 pounds for this role, as did Leto).

 This character has an arc with barely any curvature to it, and this works much to the film’s favor, as it balances out a sentimentalized and borderline preachy script from Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack.  Leto does fine work too, never going into caricature and only occasionally forcing some emotional scenes to go beyond their deserved weight.  It is undeniably McConaughey’s movie though, and thank goodness for his brilliance here.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) gives us a clear view of McConaughey’s suffering with quick hallucinations and sound mutes that never scream for attention.  The film is edited to the point that it feels almost surrealist, giving us the impression that Ron’s life is truly flying by way too fast for him to handle.

mcconaughey-dbcSome unsubtle imagery takes away from the human focus at times (holes in a clean, white wall covered up by a beautiful painting that is off angle), but Vallee works hard to keep the characters the focus and the topic the background.

His attempts sometimes work, but he is unfortunately working with a script that presents a highly villainized FDA and some dialogue that comes off as spoken from the writers’ agendas and not the characters’ mouths.

 Despite its shortcomings, this is a film that manages to hold its audience to the hope that Ron will triumph, even if his initial intentions might not be the most generous.

It is a showcase for the one of the most incredible career comebacks of the century so far, a crowning achievement on an already tremendous sequence of performances over the past few years.  You owe it to yourself to take in Mr. McConaughey’s performance, and as well as the late Mr. Woodroof’s story.