Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Far and away the best reason to see Dallas Buyers Club is Matthew McConaughey. His acting has been the best it’s ever been these last 18 months. He’s an actor of range and talent his early typecasting had done much to hide. After his Dazed and Confused early breakout performance and toiling in roles as idealistic young lawyers (A Time To Kill, Amistad), he became a star on the back of leading shallow shirtless lunkhead roles in increasingly exasperating comedies. But now, after his wide range of interesting supporting roles as of late, he’s grown into a career that’s varied, fascinating, and consistently excellent. With roles as a small-town prosecutor in Bernie, a sleazy hitman in Killer Joe, a strip club proprietor in Magic Mike, a fugitive in Mud, and reporter in The Paperboy, he made great movies (the first three) and less than good movies (the latter two) better for his being there. He went from a name that was no added value to a film’s promotion to a name that causes my attention to perk up when I see it in the cast of an upcoming project.

In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof a hard-drinking horndog who spends his time gambling and carousing when he’s not picking up day labor as an electrician to supplement his rodeo income. But he’s clearly ill, gaunt, sickly skeletal. McConaughey inhabits this diseased frame with painfully thin confidence, his swagger and charisma shining through so strongly I was afraid all the more that he’d break right in front of our eyes. The soundtrack picks up some high-frequency whines as he winces, overcome with pain as he squints and hopes it’ll pass quickly. It’s after a workplace accident that his blood happens to be drawn and flagged for further testing. The doctors (Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare) bring him the sad results: he has HIV. It’s the 1980s and HIV/AIDS is a mystery disease and treatment is fragmentary and rare. It’s widely assumed to be a disease affecting only gay people, so Woodroof, faced with a death sentence, reacts in a homophobic huff. It’s a mistake, he says, storming out of the building.

But what if it’s not a mistake? That’s the question that haunts Woodroof as he comes to accept the diagnosis. Told the best the hospital can do is offer him a spot in a clinical trial that may or may not help him, he researches treatment options, finding useful supplements that are unavailable in the States. The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved these apparently helpful substances, so Woodroof sets out to get some, figuring he might as well help his fellow HIV/AIDS patients in the process. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s screenplay relays the events as a sort of big-pharma medical heist story with a libertarian anti-FDA bent, smuggling meds through a loophole and getting them to those in need. Woodroof sets up a Buyers Club, selling memberships that entitle dues-paying customers as much medicine as they need. By not charging for the unapproved chemicals directly, he’s able to avoid directly breaking the law.

It’s the story of a man outliving his initial 30-day diagnosis, an angry prejudiced man thrown by circumstance into a culture he barely knows and doesn’t understand, but is initially certain he hates anyway. An early scene, shortly after his diagnosis sent gay slurs flying off his tongue in denial, finds his friends shunning him, spitting those same slurs back at him. He’s clearly crushed by this betrayal and that association, but soon his hospital roommate, a transgender man named Rayon (Jared Leto), becomes his business partner and friend. They have a fun and unlikely buddy chemistry that feeds into the film’s heist-like patter, even though their gaunt appearances and oft-ragged voices are clear indications that no matter the good they do, the end to their stories won’t be a cure. Even as they get these goods around the law, the FDA is sniffing around, circling, looking for a reason to shut their operation down. It’s about perseverance in a fight between bureaucracy and urgency, between funereal paranoia and hope.

The screenplay leans on speechifying and easy lessons, but has performances so electric that there’s a sense of liveliness to it all. Director Jean-Marc Vallée is hardly a subtle director. Why, the opening scene cross cuts a distractedly shot sex scene with a panting horse nearly throwing a rider in the rodeo, as if to make completely sure even the least observant audience member immediately gets the metaphor for risky behavior as HIV danger. There’s no room for subtlety here with filmmaking that’s largely only functional. But Vallée trusts his actors to put across this material, letting them express complexities of emotions in scenes that give them full attention. McConaughey runs away with the film with his frighteningly wiry intensity, balancing charm and disreputability, acting circles around Leto’s impressive-in-its-own-way look-ma-I’m-acting roller coaster of laughing, crying, flirting, and coughing.

It’s a film that’s largely a safe, solid, moralizing based-on-a-true-story message movie with plentiful generic uplift and triumph-in-the-face-of-adversity good feelings. But the acting is so strong, from McConaughey especially, that the performers manage to make it worthwhile. It might’ve seemed irredeemably phony if it were not for such a solid lead performance holding the whole thing together. If you want a more comprehensive, deeply felt, fully contextualized look at the 1980’s fight against the AIDS virus and those who would deny full opportunities for help, I’ll point you to last year’s excellent documentary How to Survive a Plague. But if you want to get a glimpse at the subject while appreciating yet again why McConaughey has become one of our most reliably excellent actors, here’s your chance. He sells everything down to the smallest moments, making subtlely out of broadness. I particularly like a scene in which he accompanies Rayon to a gay bar looking to recruit new Buyers Club members. He silently gives beefcake photos on the wall the side-eye, as if to suggest a man who is almost, but not quite, willing to loosen his bigotry in order to help his fellow man.

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