It may be a little ironic that the last film to start Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner together was the mostly forgettable romantic comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, because it is the ghosts of Ron Woodroof's past girlfriends who serve as the foundation for everything that unfolds in McConaughey and Garner's latest film, Dallas Buyers Club, a film loosely based on the real life Woodroof (McConaughey), a hard partying and homophobic man who contracted HIV in 1985 and was given a mere 30 days to live.
Much has already been made about McConaughey's incredibly frightening and jarringly uncomfortable physical transformation in becoming Woodroof, a transformation that led McConaughey to shed nearly 40 pounds to portray this increasingly emaciated AIDS patient. The brilliance of McConaughey's performance, and it is a brilliant performance, is that it's not very far into the film that you've completely forgotten the distraction of McConaughey's weight loss and are completely and utterly engrossed by this character of Woodroof, a character whom we see early on in the film having casual sex with IV drug users and snorting line after line of cocaine while living out the blue collar macho dream of a freewheeling life of booze, girls, and rodeo.
After several years of either listening to a bad agent, indigestion or a horrid gut instinct and starring in a string of instantly forgettable romantic comedies, including the aforementioned Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, McConaughey seems to have found his cinematic footing over the past couple years with acclaimed performances in The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Bernie, The Paperboy, Killer Joe and Mud, the latter two being from this year with all three of his 2013 outings easily considered award-worthy performances. This is the McConaughey that those of us who predicted greatness for the actor have always believed in, but it's also the McConaughey that stayed away for far too long.
McConaughey's performance here is one of such grounded fearlessness that he far transcends his physical performance in becoming Woodroof, whose transformation in the film is complete but never maudlin or overly sentimental. Woodroof discovers he is HIV-Positive only after a worksite electrical accident sends him to the emergency room and the truth is revealed by Doctor Saks (Jennifer Garner) and Doctor Sevard (Denis O'Hare).
So often, Hollywood turns this type of story into a "disease of the week" weeper that may tug at the heartstrings but is only nominally successful as a cinematic venture. With French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee at the helm, Dallas Buyers Club is immensely involving even when it is mired in cliche's which, quite fortunately, isn't really that often. Dallas Buyers Club does cover the cliche's, but it does so in a way that feels honest and authentic and heartbreaking and disturbing. For those of my readers from Indianapolis, a good amount of what is covered early in the film may recall the experiences of young Ryan White, whom most Hoosiers remember as a young boy who was expelled from his Kokomo middle school following his own HIV diagnosis in the mid-80's. Those same types of realities are seen here in the form of former friends turned taunting enemies, healthcare organizations and agencies putting profits before people, and the paranoid public spewing forth a venomous hatred portrayed so realistically that even sitting in the audience it's painful.
McConaughey does a beautiful job of creating a rather wicked construct of Woodroof without making him an unwatchably repulsive human being. Woodroof is homophobic, good ole' boy racist and a hard partier but, somehow, he never actually becomes a bad guy who completely loses our sympathy. One could almost say that Woodroof is simply a product of the world in which he grew up, though one could argue he doesn't really start to grow up until after he's diagnosed and everything he's ever done to get by doesn't work anymore. With nearly everyone in his life having turned away from him, including longtime best friend Tucker (Steve Zahn), McConaughey momentarily loses himself in his terminal diagnosis before researching for himself and finding out about AZT, the potential new drug showing promise for treatment. When his attempt to acquire AZT by legal means doesn't work, Woodroof learns his way around the system and acquires it another way only to have the drug nearly kill him. While one could argue that Woodroof's immersion into the world of HIV/AIDS research looks and feels cliche'd, it's also a reasonable cliche' for anyone who has ever dealt with a seemingly untreatable illness. It's really desperation that fuels Ron to try to smuggle into the country unauthorized AIDS treatment drugs that he discovers in Mexico while being treated by Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), a former U.S. doctor whose license was stripped for reasons we never discover. What Woodroof discovers is that there are other countries dealing with HIV/AIDS in very different and healthier ways than the U.S., and his life becomes consumed by obtaining as many options for himself and others that he can no matter where in the world he has to travel. The result is a "buyers club," an attempt to go around FDA regulations by giving away medications to those who purchase a $400 monthly membership into the "club."
If you're doing the math - a month of AZT was $10,000.
Club membership - $400.
While there's no question that Dallas Buyers Club doesn't quite get everything "right" in terms of the medical and legal issues, the film is remarkable in how accurately it does capture the essence of the time when AIDS was considered, in the most repulsive terms possible, "a faggot disease" as Woodroof not so eloquently points out early in the film. It also vividly captures the power of a small movement in dealing with the profiteering and bullying tactics of a government agency determined to exert its authority even at the expense of those lives it is called to serve and protect.
As mesmerizing as is McConaughey here, Jared Leto may give the film's truly "wow" performance as Rayon, a transgender woman that Ron meets in the hospital and instantly treats with a repulsion not too far removed from that which he's been experiencing himself since his diagnosis. Seldom does a performance, especially a supporting performance, leave me truly breathless but such is the case here as Leto doesn't even serve up a hint of cliche' as the beautiful and heartbreaking Rayon. While there's no question that the combination of being both transgendered and HIV-Positive in mid-80's Dallas would have resulted in a world of relentless scorn, Leto magnificently avoids a cookie cutter performance and embodies such a wondrous fullness of humanity as Rayon that I found myself laughing and crying and absolutely adoring her even in her darkest moments.
There is one fairly brief moment in the film where one can feel Rayon's entire world suddenly shift. It occurs in a grocery story as she is once again experiencing the scorn and humiliation to which she has become accustomed, but this time there is a difference as she discovers that Ron, who has at best tolerated her, has suddenly become her advocate and, perhaps more importantly, her true friend.
I admit it. I'm sobbing again even as I recall the scene now. Anything less than Oscar nominations for both McConaughey and Leto would be a tremendous travesty of justice. While their characters do lean more towards stock characters, both Jennifer Garner and Griffin Dunne are clearly inspired by the substantial material contained within Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack's intelligent and insightful screenplay and turn in memorable performances. Additionally, the always good Steve Zahn turns in his meatiest performance in several years.
Rumored to have been shot utilizing only natural light, Dallas Buyers Club has a gritty and washed out feeling that fits the material perfectly and is nicely complemented by D.P. Yves Belanger's casually intimate and stripped down camera work.
There is no question that there are times when Dallas Buyers Club is a difficult view with its honest portrayal of a not so distant shameful piece of human history when far too many Americans turned away from people who genuinely needed love, acceptance, hope and healing. While many directors would have turned this film into an overly sentimentalized and maudlin film, Vallee clearly is choosing truth over touchy-feely and honesty over heartstrings. In a world these days that seems consumed by politicians and corporations who pretend to be speaking for the American public but who are really speaking for themselves and their profits, Dallas Buyers Club is an inspirational tale about the power of the human spirit to define itself and of the human body to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. With career defining performances turned in by both McConaughey and Leto, Dallas Buyers Club leaps into the Oscar picture and becomes one of the year's most intelligently realized and emotionally resonant motion pictures.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic