Matthew McConaughey is really flippin' good in Dallas Buyers Club, a new movie from director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) about a rodeo-and-whiskey-loving straight guy who contracts HIV/AIDS in 1985 and fights to survive. It opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, Regal Crocker Park and Cinemark Valley View.
McConaughey must have made a decision a few years back to abandon the shirtless heartthrob projects of the early aughts and start exploring more complicated roles in smaller-budget films: Since 2011, he's appeared in Bernie, Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Mud and Magic Mike and dipped his toes into HBO's glittering pond as well, appearing in Danny McBride's Eastbound and Down. Next year, he'll star in a new HBO series called True Detective with Woody Harrelson. (And it looks awesome).
But Dallas Buyers Club is certainly McConaughy's most memorable performance to date, and arguably his best. He's got the trademark Texas charm that he brings to all his roles. But this time he's got homophobia and AIDS to complicate his drawl, and the benefit of a character arc which suggests that his winks and half-smiles might not be just permanent things going on with his face. Moreover, he lost 30 pounds for the part, and that will immediately strike you as a lowball estimate when you see him writhing on a medical bed.
McConaughy is Ron Woodroof, a real-life Texas electrician who's told he has 30 days to live when doctors do some investigative bloodwork after a minor workplace accident hospitalizes him in 1985. After a brief, raucous period of denial, the entrepreneurial Woodroof gets his hands on AZT, (at the time, an untested drug), but it destroys his immune system and takes him to the brink of death. He then survives on a cocktail of FDA-unapproved antivirals from global black markets and happens upon a business model.
With the aid of a transgender woman named Rayon (Jared Leto, who's pitch perfect after a four-year hiatus) Woodroof smuggles vitamins and supplements into the U.S. and kickstarts a "buyer's club" to provide alternative meds for HIV-positive people. This incites the ire of the FDA, portrayed in the film as a puppet of pharmaceutical sponsors, and a legal battle for the right to survive by any means necessary.
The film's second half sometimes feels like a docudrama about an Important Social Issue (Milk, for instance), but it's ultimately an in-depth character study. The larger story questions (will these proteins become legal? will this guy die?) seem somehow much less crucial than the questions that attend the mini-dramas (how will Woodroof treat the next gay person he sees?).
Jennifer Garner has a few nice moments as a doctor with a conscience; she provides a visual and emotional counterpoint to the messy, apocalyptic atmosphere terminal illness engenders. And though this movie is about AIDS, McConaughy's charisma and charm in the face of peril give it a steady undercurrent of levity. He struts out of a hospital indignantly at one point, bare ass jiggling in the face of doctors and FDA officials, telling them to "enjoy the view."
The view here is an elegant one. The film's imagery and script are sometimes obvious, but never preachy. You find that you're learning an awful lot almost by accident. The key takeaway is that you'll need to add McConaughey's name to any list of potential best actor