Dallas Buyers Club arrives as the latest vehicle for a movie star to lose/gain a lot of weight and transform themselves in order to get an Oscar nomination, but dismissing it as simple “Oscar bait” would be an insult to the actors and director. It’s a fantastic film that stays away from the schmaltz as much as possible. Almost too much actually.
After his realization that he’s starred in a lot of crappy movies, Matthew McConaughey has been on steady path to redemption the past few years with The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, The Paperboy, Killer Joe, Bernie, Mud, and now he’s now reached a new peak with his work as Ron Woodroff. Ron is a rodeo man/electrician who drinks, snorts, smokes, and has a lot of unprotected sex. After he accidentally electrocutes himself and lands himself in the hospital, doctors tell him he is HIV positive and has about 30 days to live. At first, Ron doesn’t believe the doctors (cause he thinks only “homos” get HIV), but then vows to stay alive. Somehow.
He starts researching the disease and the various treatments, and ends up finding a way to get his hands on AZT, a drug that is new on the market for treating HIV. Once that well runs out and he discovers that AZT is killing every cell in his body, he heads to Mexico to find alternative medicine and ends up starting to smuggle more effective drugs back into the country. He sets up the “Dallas Buyers Club” by selling the drugs to other HIV patients.
The funny thing is Ron is no angelic saviour. He’s so homophobic, sexist, destructive, and rude that it’s a testament to McConaughey that he manages to make him likeable. He uses his charm to make Ron fun to watch, even when he’s spitting out such hatred and ignorance. There’s no way this film would have worked if the audience hated Ron, so Matthew had to work hard to make this work. Losing 40 pounds to play the role, McConaughey doesn’t just do a physical transformation as Ron. He emotionally pours his heart into the role. It’s the best McConaughey has ever been.
Along for the ride is Jared Leto as Rayon, a transgender woman also living with HIV and a drug habit. Leto is shockingly good here. It’s a brave, powerful, uninhibited performance that could very well win him an Oscar. The most impressive thing in Leto’s work is that there’s not a moment that he looks uncomfortable in his skin. He completely becomes Rayon.
Jennifer Garner, playing Ron and Rayon’s doctor, also has some solid moments throughout the film, but gets overshadowed by the physical transformations around her. The film actually cheats her out of a few moments that could have been big, powerful scenes for her, but it abruptly moves on to the next scene.
That’s the only issue that the film has. It’s so focused on not being overly sentimental that it cuts some emotional scenes short. The 3 actors are all giving fantastic performances, but director Jean-Marc Vallee doesn’t let them breathe very often. The actors are so good that they still shine, but they have to pop in very brief moments. Vallee jarringly edits the film that it feels a little disjointed in moments and glosses over things at points. I didn’t think Woodruff’s motivation to go on this crusade was depicted strongly enough.
Those are minor grievances. This is an important film (it’s interesting see how people reacted to someone who has HIV in the 1980s when it was still so unknown) with fantastic performances from its leads. Expect to hear some names from this film on Oscar’s list.