By MARK DISTEFANO
Since he starred in The Lincoln Lawyer almost three years ago, Matthew McConaughey has reinvigorated his career in a totally unforeseen and shockingly effective way. Once known for spewing lifeless romantic comedies like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Fools Gold and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, the 44-year-old actor has lately made a new name for himself and reinvented how he is perceived within the Hollywood community. He’s also changed the way many moviegoers feel about him, including me. You’ve got to hand it to him; in the past three years alone he’s taken on enough interesting roles to satisfy a top-notch character actor for a decade.
He was a riot as a determined county prosecutor in Richard Linklater’s Bernie, made Jeff Nichols’ Mud one of the best films of the past summer and stole the show alongside Channing Tatum in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. In my favorite performance of his recent revival, he gave southern genteel charm and swinging-dick menace to the titular character in Killer Joe. As a crooked lawman and part time assassin with zero empathy, he carried both the satire of Tracy Letts and the kinetic energy of William Friedkin brilliantly. From then on, I was convinced he was a worthy choice to lead the cast of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming sci-fi epic Interstellar. Alas, he had yet to deliver his finest performance.
That came in the form of a homophobic AIDS victim in ’80s Texas who hatches a scheme to sneak unapproved drugs across the U.S. border, where they are distributed secretly in “buyers clubs.” As Ron Woodruff, McConaughey finally has the role that could get him an Oscar. His character is temperamental and wildly reckless when it comes to sex — yet displays a prickly affection for the homosexuals he comes to work with. Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s frank handling of every scene in the film helps evoke a character arc that veers not toward sentimentality, but toward a genuine change of heart. Woodruff is ideal material for McConaughey, who lends him his effortless Texan swagger and compliments it with his most nuanced, complex work yet. (In fact, McConaughey shed 50 pounds to play the gaunt HIV victim — dedication, check). It’s a rich and sometimes highly amusing transformation to watch in Woodruff, and one that earns every ounce of its emotional heft.
The second foremost character in the movie is Rayon, a transgender woman played in another Oscar-worthy turn by Jared Leto. When the operation of sneaking HIV medication into the States begins, Raydon first becomes a begrudging Woodruff’s best customer and then becomes his closest ally and business associate in the managing of the buyers club. Leto, who has not appeared in a film in six years and is perhaps better known as the frontman of Thirty Seconds to Mars, deserves props just for taking a transgender part as his rebound role. He is believable, lovable and authentic in a tricky and potentially controversial part. Those of you who have seen Requiem for a Dream or Mr. Nobody know that Leto picks work in unusually distinctive films; here, he gives us his best yet.
Rounding out the main cast is Jennifer Garner, who plays a doctor who becomes Woodruff’s good friend and sympathizer in his quest to acquire and disseminate effective drugs to HIV patients. The romantic scenes between Garner and McConaughey, who played her love interest in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, are exorbitantly more textured than the ones in that film — and more honest by a country mile. Garner’s Dr. Eve Saks first diagnoses Woodruff with HIV before her boss Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) tells him his blood platelets are shot and he has 30 days to live. “Ain’t nothing out there can kill Ron Woodruff in 30 days,” says a hysterically pissed-off Ron, as he flounces past the doctor and embarks on a way to treat himself.
FDA-approved AZT almost kills Ron, and after getting wind that doctors down in Mexico have something else, he takes a trip south of the border to stock up. Dressed like a priest with a trunk packed to the brim with the new, unapproved but more effective drugs, he returns to Texas and forms the Dallas Buyers Club. Membership is $400 a month — and the drugs are free. The incensed FDA does everything it can to try to shut the club down, but it appears nobody can do that to Ron Woodruff. It is a kick and a thrill — and emotionally affecting in the best possible way — to watch Ron get over his homophobia as he learns to get along with the HIV patients who are the lifeblood of his business. A boozing, gun-toting hick like him isn’t used to embracing the homosexual or the transgender, but that’s exactly what he comes to do.
That his arc feels so natural is a credit to the assured and sincere direction of Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee. He makes us care deeply about Woodruff, who outlived the doctor’s diagnosis by seven years before dying in 1992. Likewise, we care equally about the unlikely best friend who finally gets him to loosen up. There is not a mawkish touch in any shot of this movie; Vallee has wisely decided to let the characters and their actions speak for themselves. The scenery of the film is also unmistakably Texan; having such a clear backdrop serves the story well. Most of all, Vallee has a talent for finding the humor and the levity within an overwhelmingly sad, painful scenario. Alexander Payne and David O. Russell are among the other directors who have a knack for this. Even as we watch the movie knowing these characters are AIDS victims and are all but certain to die, we are always kept tremendously entertained by their ride.
This year has given us precious few movies that are simple on the surface but contain a great deal of humanity underneath. This special breed of film doesn’t shout its messages in your ear. It simply shows you their story and invites you to have an emotional response. When one comes across a film as funny, honest and mature as Dallas Buyers Club, it is nothing but a welcome surprise.