Matthew McConaughey has been having a hell of a year. He's been having quite a comeback as of late in general, actually, having given prolific, critically acclaimed performances in Magic Mike and Killer Joe. But the past year for him has been insane: a complicated and enigmatic leading role in Mud (which is excellent and very high on my best of 2013 list), a brief but scene stealing and impossible-to-forget cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street (which is in my top 3 from 2013), a leading role in the new HBO series True Detective (which is, thus far, fantastic, and some of the best TV you can currently find - also, he absolutely will win an Emmy for his work), and then, of course, there's Dallas Buyers Club.
The movie features a chameleonesque and transcendent performance from an artist in his prime, and he deserved the Oscar he won for it after winning Best Actor at the Golden Globes (and when he won he started his speech with his trademarked "Awlright, awlright, awlright..." as said by his iconic character in Dazed and Confused – a moment which I both predicted and wholly loved). Pure and simple: Matthew McConaughey is on a hot streak at the moment. And I hope it doesn't let up any time soon. It's nice to see the guy finally getting his due and unlocking his true potential after having been relegated (mostly, not completely) to poorly scripted romantic comedies and critical (if not box office) duds for far too long.
Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a fast-living (drinking, smoking, snorting, screwing) electrician and sometimes rodeo bull rider who is diagnosed as HIV-positive and told he has about 30 days to live. After reacting that he couldn't possibly have a disease that only homosexuals have, he contemplates as to how his diagnosis might actually be correct (light bulb goes on over head: oh yeah ... the hookers). Being that Ron is a stubborn sort, he sets off to figure out a fix to his situation. After doing research he discovers medication that's available but not approved by the FDA and so he makes an excursion to Mexico and finds an unlicensed doctor giving out care via the experimental drugs. Realizing that there is help available for people who need it and that it's being actively withheld, Ron comes up with an entrepreneurial endeavor that facilitates just the loophole he needs to get treatment: He carts the drugs across the border in bulk (incognito of course, and with a fantastic excuse if and when he's caught and questioned) and sets up shop in a motel room - The Dallas Buyers Club. Here, people sign up for the club and get their free treatment meds as a perk. Since they're not selling the drugs themselves, but rather just "memberships," Ron effectively skirts law intervention. For awhile, at least.
The film morphs as it goes, shifting from a narrow and personal how-do-I-help-myself narrative to a more broad and empathetic how-can-I-help-others-who-are-in-need plight. While I don't always advocate the whole "it's sort of like this movie" comparative description motif that gets thrown around, I'll be a hypocrite this time - think Erin Brockovich but with AIDS in the story's foreground instead of pollution and cancer.
McConaughey is an uncompromising beast in his screen-igniting portrayal of Woodroof. The man lost something to the tune of 38 pounds for the role and fought for the film to get made, tooth-and-nail. The production was so small, they often had to use natural lighting due to time constraints, and shot the entire thing in a staggeringly fast 25 days. But the passion is in every frame, and what McConaughey has displayed here is a true metamorphosis in every sense of the word. He's vulgar and despicable early on in the film as he lies and cheats for money, binges on any substance he can cram into his body and regularly throws down for some naked time with ill-kept ladies of the night. A questionable protagonist. Yet, he's human. And you can't help but feel for the hand he's dealt, however responsible he is for attaining said cards. And his journey for personal salvation becomes so much more as he becomes essentially (in the world of this film anyway) the only REAL help and source of valuable information that others dying of his affliction have to turn to. McConaughey is so lost in his role that I oftentimes forgot I was watching him. Which is no easy feat, as he's a very uniquely identifiable actor who I've often felt has a hard time escaping his own celebrity on screen (in that, I mean when you watched his movies you didn't see the characters so much as Matthew McConaughey - soooooo not the case anymore in the dude's excellent stretch of current work).
The other shining star in the film is Jared Leto, whom I've always been a fan of, but holyfreakingcrap is he ever a powerhouse here (and also lost a crazy amount of weight to accurately portray his character). Leto has always had a penchant for aiming to work with edgy, dark material by interesting and talented filmmakers. This is no exception. He plays Rayon, a transgender woman dying of AIDS who after a chance encounter at a hospital, winds up as business partners with Ron. The two form a complicated and unlikely bond, being that Ron is incredibly homophobic and Rayon is more or less incapable of intolerance or bullshit. It takes a lot to get to the point where Ron could admit to caring about Rayon, but certain scenes in particular toward the film's latter half tug at every viable heartstring and before you can even acknowledge it, you're watching completely different people than you were at frame one. Leto gives a career-best performance and fully deserved the Oscar for Supporting Actor.
Jean-Marc Vallée directs smartly and fairly discreetly. Rarely does the film ramp up its style as if to say "look at me!" Rather, everything is captured with an almost documentary (and somewhat 90s/early 2000s indie film) aesthetic, which allows the players to play and the story to naturalistically unfold. He directs the drama without getting in the way of it, which I found sort of a perfect fit for the material, as overdramatizing the events would, I feel, soften the blow by making things too melodramatic and cheesy. This all is also helped by Yves Bélanger's deft and minimalistic cinematography. The images are at once organic and gritty. They seem to have opted for a lot of lengthy takes which were then chopped up in the editing room and compartmentalized (the film uses jump cuts to an almost Darren Aronofsky or Steven Soderbergh-like caliber). While it's not at all a glamorous looking film, it is exactly what it needs to be.
I felt for these characters. I was immersed in their world. I walked away floored and moved by their story. That's one of the film's greatest strengths: putting the audience in the grimy seat the characters sit in, for better or worse. The substance-infused sequences where Ron writhes in depravity actually made me feel like I was on drugs, from a visual standpoint. And active participation like that in a film is not something easily wrangled from an audience (especially on tales as unpleasant as this). Of course the other strength is the dueling maelstrom of McConaughey and Leto, neither of whom I could probably ever say enough about. It's a micro-powerhouse of a film. One of the year's better offerings. And an important one, at that. See it, as soon as you can.
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
PREVIOUS MOVIE REVIEW: DVD review: Prisoners harrowing but highly recommended
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Filed under: Movies