With “Dallas Buyers Club” Matthew McConaughey comes full circle. He gives an emotional performance similar to his earlier, more impassioned work. There’s no sense of the shirtless beach-loving Matthew McConaughey in this movie, only Ron Woodroof, a sleazy scumbag in Texas who contracts HIV and tries to fight the FDA. While it certainly could be an overly sentimental, treacly piece of Oscar-bait, “Dallas Buyers Club” is grounded enough to avoid being just another based-on-a-true-story underdog movie.
Back in 1986, when knowledge about HIV and AIDS was relatively limited among the non-doctor population, Ron Woodroof contracts the disease through lots and lots of unprotected sex. He is given only 30 days to live, and a drug called AZT, which will really mess him up is introduced. In an attempt to both extend his life and make a dime he, and Rayon (Jared Leto) a fellow AIDS sufferer, start a buyers club of non-toxic anti-viral medication that the FDA hasn’t approved. But Ron’s eyes are soon opened and the buyers club becomes much more personal and he learns a few lessons about acceptance. Like I said, pretty sentimental.
It’s thanks to the phenomenal acting that “Dallas Buyers Club” refrains from being maudlin and corny. Both McConaughey and Leto received attention for their remarkable weight loss, but their performances are so much more than a skinny torso. Every scene is incredibly subtle, and neither actor is afraid to reveal the ugly sides of their characters, especially McConaughey. Before Ron Woodroof was infected with HIV he was a bigot, and his McConaughey takes great pains to always keep the older bigoted Woodroof just underneath the surface.
“Ain’t nothing that can kill Ron Woodroof in thirty days.”
For all of the praise thrown McConaughy’s way, Jared Leto is the revelation in this film who completely becomes Rayon, a transvestite with AIDS who is near death. Even if Jared Leto hadn’t lost any weight, there would still be so much despair in his eyes and defiance in his stride. The character of Rayon is a difficult one to get right due to his sassy attitude and desperation to be someone more important than just a Texas weirdo who’s going to die. If any part of Jared Leto’s performance was off, or not honed just right, then the whole character, and the movie around him, would have fallen apart. But he keeps everything together with absolutely no shame and no pretense. It is pure acting at its finest.
The direction by Montreal Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée is understated and effective, giving the actors a lot of space within the frame to fill it with their performances. There’s one scene in particular, when Woodroof enters an empty cold storage freezer filled with monarch butterflies, that will stop your heart with its beauty and leave you in awe and wonder at the talent on display. Jean-Marc Vallée also knows exactly when to lighten up, and fosters a strong sense of humour throughout the film. Woodroof’s rough personality and Rayon’s charm and attitude keep “Dallas Buyers Club” from wallowing in the despair of the fight against AIDS, while never sacrificing real conversation for a punchline.
“I’m not selling drugs. I’m selling memberships.”
Though the lasting conversation about “Dallas Buyers Club” will be focused on Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s masterful performances and weight loss, the overall quality of the film must not be forgotten. It tells a tale tailor made for the Acadamy without resorting to cliche or sap. And the performances really do push the limit of what actors can accomplish.