MOVIE REVIEW—DALLAS BUYERS CLUB—5 stars (out of 5 stars)
Dallas Buyers Club is an astonishing true story about the early years of the AIDS crisis packed with a healthy dose of evolving attitudes about the disease, homosexuality and good old fashioned optimism. And if Matthew McConaughey and his co-star Jared Leto don’t earn Oscar nominations (if not wins) for Buyers Club, I will be in utter shock. You simply will not see a better performance from an actor this year than McConaughey’s honest portrayal of a broken man who has nothing left to lose.
We meet Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) as a sweaty, scrawny sex machine — profane, homophobic, coke-snorting, whiskey-drinking and ignorant. The film’s gritty opening scene, showing Woodroof in the raw act of carefree sex with two women at a rodeo, genuinely reflects the way his character believes and the way he lives his life.
And he is gaunt gaunt gaunt! It’s not a good look for McConaughey. It’s not a good look for anybody. Apparently McConaughey lost nearly 50 pounds in a 5 month span for this role after taking it over from the likes of Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt himself. Good move on McConaughey’s part, as we have never seen him play so flawlessly against the typecast he was thrust into over the past 10 years or so.
This being 1985 Texas, Ron, a card-playing electrician who works on oil rigs, is all about bars, rodeos and living in the moment. We see his unprotected sex. When he gets in a tussle, we see his blood get all over everything. We fret because we know what’s coming.
An accident puts him in the hospital, where they figure out his other health issue. “Frankly, we’re surprised you’re still alive,” the doctors (an incandescently subdued Jennifer Garner, and Dennis O’Hare from American Horror Story and True Blood) tell him. He probably has just thirty days to get his affairs in order. McConaughey’s reaction to this news forlorn is worth the Best Actor Oscar alone.
Of course Woodroof storms out, committed to denial. Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee’s film strikingly begins counting off the days — “Day 1, “Day 8″ — waiting for him to come around.
The first grand twist in Dallas Buyers Club is learning that Ron Woodroof isn’t just some ignorant homophobic hick. He actually goes to the library, does some research and when he can’t get on a drug trial that guarantees him the “miracle” drug, he buys stolen AZT. He winds up in Mexico, where a doc who lost his license is on the front lines of the AIDS war, and is sharing, with his patients, everything and anything that the world’s researchers can come up with. Woodroof starts smuggling the stuff to America. The FDA doesn’t approve? “Screw the FDA,” he drawls. I’m gonna be DOA.”
The great conflicts set up here are Woodroof’s efforts to fool the Border Patrol, the FDA, the DEA and the doctors who put regulations before the slim hopes of desperate, dying patients. Having obtained it for himself, Woodroof realizes that knowledge is power. He soon discovers that these people have no knowledge nor power. They are victims of circumstance, just as he is.
An utterly unrecognizable Jared Leto plays Rayon, a cross-dressing AIDS patient who sees Woodroof’s traveling/smuggling pharmacy as a crowning lifeline. He ignores Ron’s homophobia long enough for them to team up and steal an idea that had worked elsewhere. They set up a drug “Buyers Club” that protects them from drug dealing charges and gives AIDS patients a fighting chance with the latest promising drugs from abroad.
Leto gives a supporting performance that would most typically steal a movie. Were it not that the film rests on McConaughey’s hearty shoulders, all the attention would be his. After a four year absence from movies, Leto literally dissolves into this role. He lost over 30 pounds for the part and has the whole act down marvelously—from the strut of his character to the lisp in his tones. I was pleased to see him given several phenomenal scenes in which he could really make his character more than a stereotype. He succeeds with concise precision. It’s early, but I would wager the Supporting Actor Oscar is Leto’s to lose for this one.
Out of the gloom something special—genuine, never forced—develops. A great touch — the way this friendship of convenience builds between the pair of opposites. McConaughey delivers the brazen, foul-mouthed laughs while Leto tugs at your heart. The film’s director, Vallee, working from a script by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, may be taking things in heart-warming directions, but he’s in no hurry to do it. The friendship that unfolds between Ron and Rayon is intentionally and brazenly uncomfortable at first, but evolves into something unexplainable (almost a love story of odd sorts minus the physical attraction and sex). While in the wrong hands it may have felt contrived/forced, the two actors sell it with unwavering competence and savvy. We witness two shallow and sad people who find more comfort and assurance in one another than they ever had found through sex or anything else before. It’s a peculiar, remarkable, and unforgettable relationship that is the heart of Buyers Club.
Another award-worthy performance comes from Jennifer Garner who plays Eve Saks, a hospital doctor to Leto (and McConaughey at times). She takes a curious (yet believable) liking to Ron Woodroof. She seems mystified by his larger than life attitude and he wants her to believe in their newfound research. Garner (who was just as amazing in 2007’s Juno) delivers a difficult solemn performance, knowing that the movie belongs to her male counterparts. She only has one or two showcase scenes, yet provides much to the story as she witnesses it all unravel, struggling to find what she deems best for her HIV/AIDS patients. Garner really is an underrated actress, and her portrayal here is absolutely noteworthy, only adding to her record as a fine Hollywood actress.
I was enamoured by the film as Woodroof and Rayon try to change the lifelong habits that might doom them, with limited success. There are gut-wrenching, intense scenes played out in Buyers Club, from beginning to end. I learned much from watching, and left wanting to know more. There are moments near the end of the film in which delicate symbolism and detail are used to evoke a hopeful emotion from the audience. These latter scenes strike a chord and work on every level intended.
And that somberness still takes nothing away from this pro-active, uplifting and thoroughly entertaining jaunt through AIDS history, and the epic commitment of its actors to do right by it. Dallas Buyers Club is undoubtedly one of the best pictures of the year. I was touched and inspired beyond expectations. DARE TO LIVE indeed…
(Written December 1, 2013)
Anybody else agree about the performances and how they are destined to be recognized when awards season arrives?