Who is it that we have to thank for Matthew McConaughey’s career resurgence? His agent? His mom? His smoking partner Woody Harrelson? His own fevered mind? Whomever or whatever it might be, they deserve a raise, a plaque, a medal, or at least a shout out during the Oscars when McConaughey’s picking up a statue at long last. We have to know that’s coming. Look at the man’s resume over the past three years: his stellar supporting turns in Magic Mike, The Paperboy, and Bernie, and his starring performances in Killer Joe and Mud. An amazing hitting streak, and maybe enough to finally wash away the bad taste of all those romantic comedies he’s stumbled through.
Add to this peerless run, his latest effort is a starring with a capital “S” role in Dallas Buyers Club. In this film, McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, a good ol’ boy hustler whose careless ways with women, drink, and drugs comes back to haunt him when he is diagnosed with HIV and told he has, at best, 30 days to live. Rather than swallow this humbly, Woodruff fights back, at first scoring some AZT (in clinical trials at the time) and then departing for Mexico to obtain some non-FDA approved meds. Woodruff is emboldened by the results and brings cases of it back to Dallas with him to sell to his fellow AIDS-sufferers. With the help of one such patient, a pre-op transwoman named Rayon (played by Jared Leto), he sets up the titular club, which offers as much medicine as a person needs for a monthly fee.
As with most of McConaughey’s performances, how he centers himself within this role is through his physicality. That meant dropping 30 pounds and looking downright skeletal. As Woodruff, he moves with a bit of a swagger that slowly gets chipped away as the story moves forward. With that core in place, McConaughey brings the rest of his performing gifts to bear, being at times charming (particularly with actress Jennifer Garner who plays a local doctor that supports Woodruff’s effort), gruff, angry, and desperate. McConaughey beautifully underplays it all, making his character’s journey even more special to witness.
And his performance is especially, shockingly great when the rest of the film is taken into account. Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee does his level best with this rough sketch outline of real events, but too often relies on moments stretched to the breaking point for maximum heart string yanking effect. This could have been especially bad in the case of Rayon’s dramatic arc. But again, the acting saves the day: Leto has never been better in any role as he is here. Every time you think he’s going to devolve into camp, he reins it in enthrallingly. Even in the big scene, when Rayon sucks up her pride and slips her frail body into a suit to seek help from her estranged father, Leto threads the emotional needle so carefully. He’s a true match for McConaughey’s brash and bold work.
On top of a compelling character study, Dallas Buyers Club also provides a subtly scathing indictment of the FDA’s foot-dragging during the first years of the AIDS crisis. Sure, the big bad fed who comes a-knockin’ on the club’s hotel room/office is played up for villainous effect, but there are enough underlying issues dredged up about the dangers of early AZT trials and how hospitals and clinics were laid under the thumb of the pharmaceutical industry that this would make for a fantastic double feature with How To Survive A Plague.