Any doubt that still exists in audiences’ minds as to Matthew McConaughey’s talents as an actor are permanently put to rest by “Dallas Buyers Club,” in which the 6-foot Texan star shed 38 pounds to play Ron Woodruff, the unlikely mastermind behind a scheme to circumvent the FDA by delivering unapproved treatments to AIDS patients during the late ’80s. But McConaughey’s is not the only performance of note in this riveting and surprisingly relatable true story, which co-stars Jared Leto as his transsexual accomplice. Rave reviews for both actors should draw mainstream auds to one of the year’s most vital and deserving indie efforts.
Nearly 20 years after launching his career as a hayseed hunk in “Dazed and Confused” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation,” McConaughey subverts that same macho image by playing a redneck bigot who becomes the unlikely savior to a generation of gay men frightened by a disease they don’t yet understand. Woodruff was straight — which the film makes abundantly clear in his undiminished pursuit of any woman who crosses his path — and reprehensibly homophobic to boot, but his newfound outcast status inspired a sense of empathy toward his HIV-positive peers that not only motivated his actions but also serves as this exceptionally well-handled pic’s most valuable takeaway.
Certainly, what makes the character so interesting is the way that a man so driven by selfishness could undergo such a reversal after his own life was threatened. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s screenplay wastes little time in getting to the diagnosis: After a workplace accident lands him in the hospital, Woodruff is told that he has HIV by a pair of doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner) on the brink of implementing a new double-blind AZT trial among their patients at Dallas Mercy. Since best estimates give him only 30 days to live, Woodruff decides he can’t risk ending up in the placebo group and devises a way to scam some of the drug for himself.
After a second near-death experience south of the border, Woodruff realizes that AZT only makes his condition worse (especially when combined with his steady diet of cocaine, booze and methamphetamines), leading him to experiment with a cocktail of potential remedies not yet sanctioned by the FDA. If there’s a villain in the real-world version of this story, it’s the virus. For the sake of dramatic conflict, however, the film pits Woodruff against two of the biggest forces in American society — the government (represented by the FDA) and the corporate sector (“Big Pharma”) — positioning him as the rule-breaking Robin Hood who circumvents their profit-oriented practices in order to get effective treatments into the hands of people.
On one hand, the drug companies are shown conspiring with hospitals like Dallas Mercy to rush AZT through the system, even when research points to the medicine’s immunity-lowering side effects. At the same time, the FDA appears to be dragging out the approval process on other promising options, which means thousands will die before existing products get approved. For a detailed look at activist citizens’ struggle against these entities, last year’s “How to Survive a Plague” does the trick, while “Dallas Buyers Club” unfolds almost like a crazy heist movie: It’s the story of how one incredibly motivated creep managed to circumvent the system and redeem himself in the process.
Canadian helmer Jean-Marc Vallee (best known for the real-feeling coming-of-ager “C.R.A.Z.Y.”) makes no effort to polish Woodruff’s unrefined and frequently offensive worldview (his opening line is a slur against Rock Hudson, with many unflattering epithets to follow). Meanwhile, McConaughey commits to the character so fully, he never lets himself off the hook with that apologetic wink so often tossed off when actors play someone whose politics they don’t necessarily share.
The role calls for nothing short of full immersion, and the star — whose recent roles in everything from “Magic Mike” to “Mud” have shown his commitment to total transformation — comes off as almost unrecognizable, apart from his charisma: a bony scarecrow of a man with shaggy brown hair and a Freddy Mercury moustache. His Woodruff is a bull-riding, chain-smoking good ol’ boy who might never have justified his existence on earth if not for the way he responds to this particular adversity, and yet, his coarse, nothing-to-lose personality makes him the only person who could have turned such a seemingly hopeless situation to his advantage.
Leto’s character, Rayon, is just the opposite: sensitive, considerate and not quite self-reliant. In another kind of movie, audiences would root for his sort to escape such a backward place, but here, he’s the queer character just nonthreatening enough to break through Woodruff’s homophobic defenses, inspiring an act of chivalry in the grocery store that ranks among the all-time great prejudice-melting scenes. The movie has to earn that moment, and it does so by establishing such a genuine foundation for its characters. Like last spring’s “Pain and Gain,” “Dallas Buyers Club” was inspired by an over-the-top magazine story, but instead of treating everything as an enormous gonzo joke, Vallee and his team use the outrageous details to deepen the human-interest angle.
Although shot on a relatively tight budget, the film convincingly re-creates the period via a gritty widescreen look that suits Vallee’s naturalistic style. With one exception (a cathartic moment for Garner’s increasingly frustrated character involving a hammer), the only music heard throughout plays on radios or jukeboxes in the background of scenes. The handheld shooting style is never so unsteady as to distract, but instead lends an almost subliminal authenticity to scenes where character remains at the forefront at all times.
Not since “I Love You Phillip Morris” has a film put such a fresh twist on the accepted AIDS narrative, but instead of getting in the public’s faces the way that crazy Jim Carrey comedy did, “Dallas Buyers Club” works its way under their skin. By choosing such a vocally homophobic antihero, writers Borten and Wallack ensure that no matter how uncomfortable audiences are with HIV or so-called “alternative lifestyles,” they will recognize Woodruff’s knee-jerk bigotry as uncool. And thus, the film manages to educate without ever feeling didactic, and to entertain in the face of what would, to any other character, seem like a grim life sentence.