Matthew McConaughey’s reputation as an ultra laid-back dude who occasionally plays bongos in the buff is so ingrained that it’s easy to forget what a solid actor he’s been over the years.
Directors including Steven Spielberg, John Sayles, Richard Linklater and Steven Soderbergh have thought highly enough of him to cast him in key roles. As McConaughey eases into middle age, he appears ready to commit fully to being respected as an actor and not just eye candy.
There’s no better example of this phenomenon than his role as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, which puts us directly in the middle of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s.
Woodroof was an electrician/rodeo cowboy who tended to live his personal life in as risky a manner as his professions would suggest. When we first meet him, it’s clear that HIV has already taken hold of him, as he’s visibly emaciated.
After receiving the diagnosis, which he and his friends had previously equated with being gay, he sets out to try to find effective treatments, only to discover that almost none are to be found in the U.S.
The film juxtaposes the good ol’ boy culture Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) belonged to prior to his diagnosis and the mostly gay culture he finds himself immersed in post-HIV.
This discovery leads him on a quest to get medication wherever it can be found, even if that means smuggling it in from other countries. He soon realizes that others in his predicament will pay good money for what he’s bringing in, and thus the Dallas Buyers Club is born.
The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and written by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, plays heavily on the juxtaposition between the good ol’ boy culture Woodroof belonged to prior to his diagnosis and the mostly gay culture he finds himself immersed in post-HIV.
Woodroof's transformation is sure to occur, but to the film’s credit, it keeps those changes relatively subtle. Woodroof remains his irascible self throughout, even as he grows to accept those he had previously found detestable.
The film can be a bit on the nose at times, and the main conflict between Woodroof and an FDA official hellbent on shutting down his not-quite-illegal operation never truly makes the grade. Rather, it’s Woodroof’s evolving personal relationships with Rayon (Jared Leto), a drag queen who becomes his business partner, and Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), with whom he has multiple encounters at the local hospital, that keep the story humming.
McConaughey’s performance is riveting, and not just because he starved himself to fully fit the role. The way he invokes fury, compassion, cockiness and humor, sometimes within the same scene, is the mark of a true actor.
Leto, making his first major screen appearance in six years, is equally good. Rayon, despite physical appearances, is about as far from a gay caricature as you can get, all of which is due to Leto’s nuanced performance. Garner does well, but since nearly all of her scenes are with McConaughey or Leto, it’s never her show.
It's been a while since a major studio movie focused on AIDS was released, but Dallas Buyers Club proves that the disease and the stories around it never lose their power. The filmmakers chose wisely when selecting McConaughey for the lead, as he makes everything about the story compelling from beginning to end.