2013, Jean-Marc Vallee
The career renaissance of Matthew McConaughey has reached its apex with Dallas Buyers Club, the true story of Ron Woodruff, a reckless bigot who contracts HIV in Texas in the mid ’80s. Looking back just two years, if you had told me that McConaughey would be one of the most exciting, talented and versatile actors working in the film industry I would have laughed you out of the building. If you had then told me that he would soon be giving my favorite performance of the year, I believe I would have died from laughing so hard I forgot to breathe. Yet here we are, as the actor’s work stands far and away above anything else I’ve seen this year and while I’ve still got some exciting performances to witness, I can’t imagine a single one of them comparing to his monumental achievement here.
This is an actor who less than three years ago was nothing more than a punchline for imitations of a shirtless surfer dude that no one could take seriously. Hell, he even starred in a movie called Surfer, Dude just to prove to everyone that he understood how he was perceived. Despite the occasional solid performance in films like A Time to Kill or a scene-stealing supporting role (and one of the only things I enjoyed) in Tropic Thunder, his sheet had been overwhelmed by the recycled garbage of massive flops and rom-com disasters like Fool’s Gold and Sahara. Long gone was the idea that McConaughey was an actor who could be taken seriously and even the droves of couples that made a date night out of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days were sick of the man, staying away from that aforementioned reunion with the box-office poison that is Kate Hudson. His career had fallen apart, but in a rare show for a Hollywood actor this finally caused something to click in him.
After a couple of years off, he began to take into consideration the fact that he wanted to star in the kind of films that he wanted to see, working with creative and intelligent directors that had faith in the talent that he had been squirreling away for a long time now. We got a small taste of it in the relatively mundane The Lincoln Lawyer — not the best film but at least a step up from his usual routine. It was 2012, however, that really showed the world a different side of McConaughey; showed everyone what he was truly capable of delivering when he put the work into it. With a run of performances as varied as a sadistic hitman in Killer Joe, a male strip club manager/performer in Magic Mike and a district attorney in Bernie, McConaughey tapped into a reservoir of talent we hadn’t seen from him before and gave tremendous work under the direction of talents like Steven Soderbergh and William Friedkin. Stunning the world over the course of the year, whatever spark ignited in the man hasn’t let up for a second and he’s climbed to even greater form in 2013; starting with his melancholy, ethereal turn as the lovesick fugitive in Jeff Nichols’ Mud and continuing onward to his greatest achievement yet as the AIDS-suffering Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the astonishing turnaround McConaughey has pulled in his career and that’s certainly something that takes up a lot of space in my mind both in general and especially when considering his tour de force work in this film, but truly if anyone had given this caliber of performance it would have been equally as sensational. It just happens to be more impressive given where the actor responsible for it was standing just a few brief years ago. Even those unfamiliar with this film are likely to have been witness to the drastic physical transformation that McConaughey endured in order to capture the gaunt appearance of Woodruff, losing 38 pounds and whittling down to a figure far removed from the shirtless Adonis that used to occupy the frames of Failure to Launch. These kind of intense physical changes in service of a performance can often overshadow the work the actor ultimately gives in the final product, especially when the film itself ends up being something of a disaster, but McConaughey’s portrayal transcends just the physical form he takes on here. He maintained that in order to properly respect this real human being he had to do this to himself and he’s absolutely right in saying that, but his performance is so much more than just “that movie he lost all the weight for”. The physical transformation is astonishing but it’s the emotional one that is so grueling to watch.
We are introduced to Woodruff as a despicable bigot, conning men out of their money, having some particularly sweaty three-ways before loading up on drugs and when he’s informed of his HIV diagnosis his first instinct is to physically threaten the doctor for insinuating that he’s a homosexual. When we meet Woodruff he is not a good man, and neither McConaughey nor the ace script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack do anything to try and hide that fact. They also wisely avoid making his transition into someone more understanding of different sides of life something out of a Lifetime movie of the week, complete with the sob scenes of emotional trauma and the uplifting score to wring the tears out of the tissue-loaded audience. When Woodruff is denied the drugs that he believes will make him better, he makes a sojourn to Mexico and finds a doctor who can help ease his condition with a cocktail of vitamins and other medications that won’t cure him but can at least make living less of a torturous experience. Woodruff’s endeavor to set up an operation that will provide this treatment to the AIDS sufferers like him isn’t one out of kindness to the homosexual community or even one out of greed for the financial gain that he can achieve through it, but simply a giant “fuck you” to the doctors, FDA and pharmaceutical companies who were perfectly fine with letting him and others like him die while they waited to see what they could do and how it could earn them the most cash.
McConaughey’s natural magnetic charm goes a long way in making the more unlikable aspects of Woodruff’s personality less repulsive on the surface, but there’s no hiding the fact that he’s not a particularly decent man and it’s only in a gradual shift over time spent with these people that he begins to understand and perhaps even appreciate a different side of life than he’s accustomed to. Being shunned by his like-minded former friends who mock him for having a disease commonly associated with homosexuality sends a devastating revelation through him, and the way that McConaughey processes this pain through his expressions is shattering. It happens in that first hospital scene as well, where in his eyes you can see all of the hurt and confusion but his response is such a defensive one, so combustive out of fear and shame that he lashes out at those around him. It’s an absolutely shattering portrayal, such a lived in and natural work that it instantly becomes about much more than just the physical transformation he went through to capture the truth of the man. I never imagined I’d see the words “Academy Award Nominee” next to Matthew McConaughey, but not only do I think he deserves a nomination here, he deserves to walk up on that stage and accept the trophy for the damn thing.
McConaughey isn’t the only part of this great cast though, and director Jean-Marc Vallee draws some impressive performances out of a wide variety of actors. Jennifer Garner hasn’t had the best film career since her popular series Alias concluded, but she gets some solid scenes thanks to that impressive script and she delivers them well. Likewise, talented actors ranging from Denis O’Hare to Griffin Dunne don’t have a lot of time on screen to make their characters whole but they’ve been around long enough to know how to deliver something that keeps things moving in the natural, rhythmic way that Valle intends. That being said, anyone who has read anything about Dallas Buyers Club knows that the highlight of the supporting cast is the multi-talented Jared Leto. Someone who is no stranger himself to drastically altering his body for a role, Leto lost 30 pounds for his part here as Rayon, a transgender HIV-positive woman who becomes a close ally in Woodruff’s fight to get this medicine to those who need it. Leto had taken off several years from acting after putting on an insane 67 pounds (and seriously risking his personal health) to play John Lennon’s killer in the critically maligned Chapter 27, but his return here goes to show that he too is a tremendously gifted actor when given the right material to work with.
There’s been a long line of actors who have been given plenty of praise for their commitment in turning in these kind of technically astounding performances, but for every one that deserves the acclaim there’s another that I’ve felt focus so much on inhabiting the technical requirements of the character that they lost sight of the soul of these people and it becomes too much about that physical aspect rather than the emotional. McConaughey and Leto demonstrate exactly how it should be done; they know that the physicality of these people is a necessity but they don’t once falter in breathing the life into who these people actually are beyond that. They both deserve any accolade they receive for their work, as do Borten and Wallack for gifting them a script that capitalizes flawlessly on the winning chemistry the two share through every piece of their interesting friendship. These characters develop a rapport that makes Dallas Buyers Club an absolute joy to watch, something quite surprising and very welcome for such heavy subject matter.
When you read on paper that this is going to be the true life story of a bigot diagnosed with HIV who fights the system along with his transgender associate and the actors went through drastic weight loss for their roles, it all sounds like the kind of preachy melodrama that screams Oscars but honestly puts me to sleep. I’m never one whose been especially prone to biopics and despite my fondness for the actors this sounded like it was going to be a chore to sit through. Thankfully, everyone involved fuses Dallas Buyers Club with such a rambunctious energy that it flies by and left me wanting more and more. That’s not say there isn’t any heartache here; there’s certainly a wealth of emotional struggle and absolutely wrenching scenes that captured the depth of their situation but Vallee gives the film a resonance without once letting things become treacly or sentimental.
It’s rare to be given this kind of important story with the film not letting itself succumb to that self-importance inherent within it (something that I could definitely accuse other major films from this year of being, to a detriment) but Dallas Buyers Club tackles its issues with a passion that never feels like it’s trying to hit the audience with any kind of lesson. It’s a very important movie but it doesn’t try to shove that fact down your throat; it just presents its story the way that it should naturally be told and its resonance comes honestly as a result of that. Vallee and company have taken something that could have easily fallen into the dull Oscar-baiting dramas that we see litter the screens around this time every year and turned it into an immensely energetic film loaded with heart and the ability to draw your emotion out without once feeling like its trying to manipulate you. Headed by one of the best performances in recent years, Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t miss a beat in capturing this fascinating, emotional and significant story.