A lot has been made recently about movie stars losing drastic amounts of weight for roles. Probably too much. Our knee-jerk reverence for this extreme form of artistic commitment tends to confuse shocking physical transformations with great acting. Or conversely, it can reduce what are accomplished performances to self-indulgent actorly stunts. But when Christian Bale ghoulishly turned himself into a skin-and-bones specter in The Fighter and Michael Fassbender wasted away as political prisoner Bobby Sands in Hunger, we felt like we were spying on two actors dangerously blurring the line between Method and madness. The number of pounds they shed was just one facet of their powerful portrayals.
In the new film Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey pulls off a similar feat. As a man sentenced to death in the terrifying and confusing early days of the AIDS epidemic, he digs deep and summons a raw, go-for-broke ferocity that’s as harrowing as it is unforgettable. Putting aside for a moment that the film itself isn’t quite as nuanced as his performance, what McConaughey accomplishes here should be considered the culmination of an unlikely career overhaul that began with 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer and then continued with unselfconscious turns in Bernie, Magic Mike, and Mud. If there was any doubt that McConaughey is more than just a tawny-chested rom-com stud, there should be no question anymore.
Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, a rodeo-loving Texas good ol’ boy who has a work accident that lands him in the hospital, where a routine blood test reveals that he has HIV. When he’s told he has 30 days to live, all that the bigoted, proudly heterosexual Ron can think to say is ”I ain’t no faggot!” Can a man like this be redeemed? That’s the prickly question Jean-Marc Vallée’s film sets out to answer. Considered too far gone to benefit from AZT trials, he bribes a hospital janitor to get him doses of the experimental drug, and then gobbles the pills down like a fistful of beer nuts with a booze and cocaine chaser. When his supply dries up, Ron heads to a fleabag clinic in Mexico, where an unlicensed American doctor (Griffin Dunne) starts him on a cocktail of non-FDA-approved vitamins and proteins. Even though he’s a dead man, Ron recognizes a business opportunity when he sees one. Soon, he’s not only getting healthier, he’s also smuggling his south-of-the-border remedy back to the States, where he starts a specialized club. For a $400 monthly membership fee, terminal AIDS patients don’t buy, they’re given the drugs — a scheme that allows Ron to temporarily skirt the law on a technicality.
His partner in crime is Rayon, a glamorously sarcastic and ailing transgender woman played by a heartbreaking Jared Leto. If Ron has the business smarts, Rayon is his entrée into Dallas’ gay customer base. Their friendship is undeniably touching, but it’s also a bit tough to buy at face value — the lifelong homophobe who undergoes an overnight conversion. Ron’s relationship with a sympathetic doctor (Jennifer Garner, in an underwritten role) is equally unconvincing. Meanwhile, his adversaries — the FDA, the DEA, and the doctors in bed with Big Pharma — are painted as one-dimensional mustache twirlers. Still, thanks to McConaughey’s and Leto’s fearless performances as two terminally ill men going to whatever lengths it takes, swallowing as many pills and injecting as many syringes as necessary to survive another day, Dallas Buyers Club achieves a sort of grace. It’s been 20 years since Tom Hanks put a movie star’s face on the AIDS crisis in Philadelphia. Since then, Hollywood has largely ignored one of the most tragic chapters of the 20th century. Considering that track record, even a movie as imperfect as Dallas Buyers Club is something worth celebrating. B