MOVIE REVIEW: Dallas Buyers Club



This blogger finds it incredibly rare that an actor can reinvent themselves and elevate their credibility after diving to certain depths of weak entertainment.  Just this same week, this website, in mocking letter form, dismissed Vince Vaughn's ability to think he can channel Jimmy Stewart.  He should stick to sarcasm, stick to being an asshole, and not try to pretend to be something he's not.  Others have tried failed much in the same way.  Over the last two years, we are in the process of observing a rare case of this reinvention working in an actor's favor.

For arguably most of the last fifteen years, Matthew McConaughey was predominantly a one-note joke of a movie star.  With his Texas charm and stunning looks, he made a great living.  Between the seemingly endless parade of The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Sahara, Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, all he had to do was show up, smile, and occasionally take his shirt off.  His looks and swagger became a punchline.  Only early is his career did he challenge himself with variety beyond the romantic or action lead with supporting turns in Lone Star, A Time to Kill, Amistad, and Contact.  2002's excellent and underrated Frailty is one post-90's exception.  We knew he had it in him, but all we saw was the grown-up version of the Wooderson character we all first met and loved in Dazed and Confused.

In the last two years, the light bulb has come on for Matthew McConaughey.  He has scaled down the matinee idol status and gravitated towards independent work and supporting roles with strong ensembles.  With great roles in Bernie, Killer Joe, and The Paperboy, McConaughey found skill and success hiding in the background instead of the forefront.  The culminating hit of this reinvention came in Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike where he played a part tailor-made for his usual looks, but blew it away with acting and depth beyond the sweaty physique.  His Magic Mike performance netted him three minor awards (New York Film Critics Circle, National Society of Film Critics, and an Independent Spirit Award) for Best Supporting Actor, which opened up some serious Oscar buzz for a guy long dismissed as a true talent.  2013 has looked even more promising

He started 2013 with a lead independent role in the highly-regarded Mud, from director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), playing an escaped prisoner on the lam in the middle of a coming-of-age drama for two kids he befriends.  That role has started the Oscar whispers again, but even that role is nothing compared to the reinvention on display in Dallas Buyers Club, his newest film opening this November.

Playing a real-life victim of HIV and AIDS coming to grips with his mortality, McConaughey plays a gaunt, yet strong shadow of his usual Texas personality.  It's a shattering performance swinging between power and vulnerability minute-to-minute.  It's the best Matthew McConaughey has ever been and might just be the role that puts him onstage at the Oscars this coming winter.

Dallas Buyers Club spans the late 1980's epicenter of the country's public battle with AIDS.  Our story begins in 1985, not long after the shocking revelation and AIDS death of outed gay movie star Rock Hudson made headlines.  McConaughey is Ron Woodroof, an electrician by trade, who gets his kicks partying as a rodeo bull rider with his fellow tough guy and homophobic crowd.  He dives into all of the sex, drugs, and alcohol that a cowboy can handle.  When one bender of a night lands him in the hospital, Ron's blood work comes back HIV-positive and he is given 30 days to live, thanks to the debilitating toll the continued substance abuse puts on his body.

Dismissing his diagnosis at first, Ron is ostracized by his cowboy buddies for ending up with a "queer's" disease and starts bottoming out.  He bribes hospital workers for the pharmaceutical trial drug AZT after not being eligible for their crooked profit-making program.  When that supply chain ends, he heads to Mexico after learning about the non-FDA-approved drug options and treatments that are available in other countries.  In getting treated by a rogue expat doctor (Griffin Dunne), Ron's eyes are opened to wide array of successful protein, vitamin, and anti-viral supplements that aren't available or approved in the United States.  He extends his 30 days by a few more months.

Ron's sees not only hope for himself, but a business opportunity.  With shades of Catch Me if You Can, he aims to smuggle international drugs into the U.S. and sell them to untreated people like himself who aren't being helped by the harmful AZT.  In seeking customers, Ron aligns himself with Rayon, a slinky homosexual transvestite played by Jared Leto.  Together as unlikely business partners, they create the "Dallas Buyers Club" out of a pair of seedy hotel rooms.  Compared the costly AZT treatment at the hospital that is over $12,000 a year, the Dallas Buyers Club becomes a $400 monthly membership group that provides a full spectrum of previously unavailable medications.

To play Ron Woodruff at his state of fluctuating health, Matthew McConaughey lost 50 pounds.  His lack of build does not diminish his charismatic impact inDallas Buyers Club.  He is every bit the driven man you expect him to be, but wavers so tenuously close so often to loosing that initiative and hope.  McConaughey is nothing short of brilliant in playing that balance.  He is as utterly captivating as he's ever been in a towering performance.  Fellow lead Jared Leto also lost his fair share of weight, 30 pounds, to play Rayon and become the emotional center of the film.  He is unrecognizable from his teen heartthrob days back on TV's My So-Called Life.  For as shunned as a man's man like Ron becomes, Rayon has it far worse as a homosexual and transvestite, but Leto's character carries that scarlet letter with a fearless and uncompromising dignity.  Both gentlemen wholeheartedly deserve Oscar nominations for their roles in Dallas Buyers Club.  A nice ensemble operates around them, particularly Jennifer Garner's supportive and disillusioned doctor and Steve Zahn's sympathetic cop, but this is McConaughey and Leto's show.

The subject matter of the film can be difficult to champion.  Ron's a real peach of a bigot for quite some time.  With Rayon and company, it's a dicey subculture being explored that not all will accept.  The film also lays a good share of blame on federal regulations, doctors, and big business pharmaceuticals for keeping viable help to those who were sick and dying three decades ago.  It's a good bet these topics will infuriate rather than inspire some moviegoers.  That said, Dallas Buyers Club, like Philadelphia  before it, is a story worth telling.  One can argue that this film is better than Philadelphia for leaving the imagined courtroom of "loosely inspired by" and telling a legitimate true story, warts and all.  Ron Woodroof fascinatingly took his 30 days and turned them into seven years.  While HIV and AIDS doesn't garner the huge amount of public attention it used to, it's still an real epidemic and problem.

LESSON #1: CHALLENGING THE GOVERNMENT WHEN IT FAILS PEOPLE-- This movie isn't overtly political, but there is definitely the cautionary lesson of going after the government for its failures.  Much of the medication that kept Ron and fellow afflicted people alive during this time was either illegal or unapproved by the FDA.  Ron challenged this front both legally and illegally.  While he was Robin Hood with a profit in mind, he still sought to get people what they needed against the bureaucracy that held him down.

LESSON #2: BEING IN THE SAME BOAT WITH SOMEONE BREAKS DOWN BARRIERS-- The cowboy Ron we meet couldn't be more opposite or against what his business partner Rayon is all about.  He is a homophobic, bigoted jerk of a man for much of his life, but experiencing this survival plight alongside the misunderstood Rayon changes him.  Even though they bust each others balls, they find mutual respect.  Ron softens his hard edges and helps Rayon as no one else ever has.

LESSON #3: FACING YOUR MORTALITY WITH DIGNITY AND DRIVE-- The medical death sentence Ron is given doesn't keep him down.  It certainly wounds him, but it doesn't take away his drive to live.  He is heart-set to go down swinging and "die with his boots on," no matter what people doubt him or look down to him.  Rayon also has no plans on compromising his lifestyle when faced with eventual death.  Both men help each other hold their chins high.