Given his recent output, Matthew McConaughey’s career path might best be described as a “reverse De Niro”. You see, Robert De Niro spent the first half of his career delivering some of the finest acting performances of all time in classic films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, but his output over the last 10-15 years or so has been, by and large, one piece of dreck after another. With occasional exceptions like Silver Linings Playbook and a cameo in American Hustle, De Niro has been afforded little opportunity to demonstrate his sublime skills as an actor in recent times, which has more to do with a lack of quality roles available than anything else. Now McConaughey, on the other hand, has experienced the opposite trajectory, although perhaps not intentionally. Having spent almost of his career thus far mired in dreadful romantic comedies as the dim witted pretty boy object of desire, roles that are not the least bit challenging or interesting, McConaughey broke free of the shackles of mediocrity with sterling performances in the likes of Magic Mike and Mud, films that required him to do much more than just look good. However, as excellent as those performances were, it is McConaughey’s most recent incarnation as AIDS-infected Texan cowboy Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club that has cemented his standing as an actor of considerable skill.
Directed by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee, Dallas Buyers Club tells the real-life story of a man who simply will not concede defeat, taking on the bureaucracy and the law in his efforts to help himself and others afflicted by a most heinous disease. When we first meet Ron Woodroof, he is a stereotypical hard drinking redneck Texan; racist and homophobic with bucking and fucking his primary recreations. He supplements his income as an electrician by taking bets on rodeo events, relying on his policeman friend (Steve Zahn) to get him out of the various scrapes in which he finds himself. When he is first diagnosed, Woodroof predictably refuses to accept that he could possibly have HIV because he is not a ‘faggot’. However, the reality soon dawns as his condition deteriorates and he sets forth to find a treatment. With no suitable treatments approved in the United States, Ron heads to Mexico and returns with a cache of drugs that are having a positive impact on his condition.
When Woodroof teams up with the transgender Rayon (Jared Leto) – with whom he briefly shared a hospital room – to secure greater access to the gay community, he soon finds his remedies in high demand. The business expands at a rapid rate, drawing the attention of regulators whose dogmatic attitude show little regard for the well-being of those already afflicted with HIV and AIDS. As the friendship with Rayon grows, Ron finds himself subjected to the same kind of behaviours and attitudes that he once inflicted upon others. Whilst driven by his primary motivations of profit and personal recovery, Ron is hailed a saviour by those seemingly abandoned by a medical fraternity who privilege profit over patient care and, when he is prevented from selling the medication, he develops an alternative model to ensure continued supply to his customers.
McConaughey is wonderful as Woodroof, a perfectly pitched performance that captures the contradictions of a man forced to question everything he knows about himself and the world in which he lives. Maintaining the arrogant swagger that defines Woodroof’s persona, whilst accepting the realities of his illness is a balancing act that McConaughey handles with considerable skill. Leto is also tremendous as Rayon, a fabulous but ultimately tragic character whose addictions and predilections prove an insurmountable hurdle. Physical transformations notwithstanding, both men are most deserving of all the accolades that have come their way thus far and Vallee (The Young Victoria, Café de Flore) also deserves considerable credit for constructing a film that never steers towards melodrama, embedding plenty of lighter moments into the narrative without ever undermining the seriousness of what the characters are going through. There are solid understated performances from Zahn and Griffin Dunne in supporting roles, although Jennifer Garner is somewhat one-dimensional as Ron’s doctor-cum-friend Eve Saks. Overall, whilst Dallas Buyers Club is an emotional ride at times, it is certainly a journey worth taking.