‘Dallas Buyers Club’: Heal thyself

October 30, 2013

dallas buyers

Having squandered most of this century’s first decade being a movie star, Matthew McConaughey has approached its second stanza as an actor. The results have been salutary.

In a year in which he’s already turned in stellar work in “Mud,” after last year’s “Magic Mike” and “Killer Joe,” here he comes, aiming squarely for a best-actor Oscar in “Dallas Buyers Club.” And we haven’t even seen what he’ll do in Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street.”

If ever there was a year that called for the presentation of an Oscar for a body of work, McConaughey is having it. The vagaries of distribution aside, it’s no coincidence that he’s given a string of deep and deeply nervy performances. “Dallas Buyers Club” is the cherry on top of the sundae.

Set in 1985, “Dallas Buyers Club” is the true story of Ron Woodroof, a part-time Dallas rodeo rider and full-time party animal. An avowed heterosexual (with a wide streak of macho homophobia, as befits the times and the region), he’s getting by on a mix of oil-field work, rodeo side-bets and whatever else gets him through the night – at least until the day he wakes up in a hospital and gets the bad news: He has tested positive for the HIV virus and doctors give him roughly 30 days to live.

Ron gets past his initial shock (of the “I ain’t no dang queer” variety) to the crux of the moment: He needs help and no one is going to help him. So he starts doing his homework, then does what he does best: bribes an orderly to get him AZT, the first drug being tested to fight AIDS and HIV.

But AZT is exceptionally harsh on the body – and Ron finally finds himself in the hands of an alternative-therapy doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dunne), who tips him off to more experimental treatments involving vitamins, amino acids and other compounds that the FDA either isn’t looking into or is banning outright.

Woodroof figures out that, like him, there must be a lot of people in Dallas who can’t get AZT (still in experimental trials) and are looking for help. So he teams up with a well-connected local drag queen, Rayon (Jared Leto), to create his own network to sell unapproved drugs he’s smuggled in – and, inadvertently, help raise the pressure on the heel-dragging Reagan administration to take AIDS treatment seriously.

Consciousness-raising is never easy to dramatize. The “a-Ha!’ moment is tough to make feel real without seeming contrived, even when it’s based on actual events. Yet director Jean-Marc Vallee and writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack simply move the story along, letting the audience figure out just how canny and ingenious (in what is initially a larcenous impulse) Ron is, once he sinks his teeth into the real issue here.

He is an unlikely rabble-rouser, the kind of guy who has always been on the lookout for the main chance and otherwise just got by. Focused on a goal as extreme as saving his own life, Woodroof finds the hero inside, simply by projecting how his own situation is manifesting on a larger scale. It’s not just self-preservation; it’s the empathy to understand that everyone else in the same position wants to live just as much you do. And then caring about it.

McConaughey, who lost significant body mass for the role of this dying man, has a wiry gauntness that threatens to turn brittle at any moment. But it’s not just his look; it’s his performance, as the kind of guy who always thought he was tougher than any virus – and has been proved drastically wrong. Now he applies that diamond-hard will to doing something bigger than himself.

Leto is a revelation, a pleasant actor afloat in a career that seemed relatively undefined because he was more involved in music than movies. But this performance is a stunner, perhaps igniting an acting career that has been looking for exactly this kind of role. The rest of the cast is up to McConaughey’s fierce focus, including Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare, as the doctors who help, then battle, then split over Woodroof’s approach.

But “Dallas Buyers Club” is Matthew McConaughey’s movie and 2013 is his year. It’s yet another reminder of how we mishandled the AIDS crisis initially, until compassion finally entered the equation.

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