One of the most essential scenes in understanding the transformation of Matthew McConaughey's career is, as it happens, one of the least essential scenes in Dallas Buyers Club. It's an innocuous dinner conversation between AIDS patient Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) and his empathetic but largely helpless doctor (Jennifer Garner). Woodroof, a hard-drinking electrician and rodeo hand who could die at virtually any moment, is turning on the charm to thank or sweet-talk the pretty doctor, or just gauge what he still has left.
Five or six years ago, scenes like this were what McConaughey was known for—the smooth-talking lady-killer. Some 60 pounds lighter, when he smiles broadly at Garner, we see muscles stretched tight in his gaunt face, muscles he has no occasion to use anywhere else in this film, either physically or emotionally. That is really the shell of McConaughey on display in the Dallas Buyers Club, which is based on real events. He's not just a handsome face anymore.
McConaughey's been on this path for a couple years, doing very good work in films like Mud and Magic Mike. And though Jared Leto deserves heaps of praise for his own terrific performance as Woodroof's transgender business partner, it's McConaughey who is chopping down the mountains. There's no question that this is his finest work and one of the signature performances of 2013. What was the trigger that got him to ditch the easy money of bad romantic comedies like Fool's Gold and Failure to Launch? Outside of The Paperboy—which was a wild missed swing by almost everyone involved, notably Nicole Kidman and director Lee Daniels—McConaughey has been superb for about half a dozen consecutive movies. His previous record was probably, I dunno, one.
He needs every ounce of his newfound abilities in Dallas Buyers Club. Woodroof liked booze, cocaine and fast, easy women. In the early 1980s, that was not an uncommon recipe for fun. But Woodroof contracted HIV (the film indicates it was from unprotected sex and not possible intravenous drug use), and by the time it's diagnosed, he has full-blown AIDS. Woodroof is given 30 days to live, give or take.
His doctors put him on AZT, which was then in fast-tracked clinical trials. Unsafe dosages wreaked havoc with already jeopardized immune systems, and Woodroof was no exception. Hospitalized toward the end of his life expectancy, he's rooming with Rayon (Leto), who is also taking part in the trials. Woodroof's growing defensiveness over suggestions about his own sexuality make their meeting and subsequent relationship pretty rocky.
This isn't a film about patients coping with AIDS or even about looking past your own preconceived notions about people. More than anything, the subject that takes over is Woodroof's fight against the Food and Drug Administration. In the mid-1980s, patients waited to die more than they waited for a cure, but Woodroof tried to buck the system. After visiting a clinic in Mexico, where his condition improved during three months of bed rest, he hit upon an idea: Importing vitamins and proteins unapproved by the FDA to combat AIDS. It might do more than just keep Woodroof alive. It could also make him money.
Soon, even the thought of profit turns into helping hundreds of people survive. When the FDA is on his trail for selling unapproved substances, he opens a club. Selling memberships at $400 a pop, Woodroof and Rayon give the meds away for free. That doesn't stop the feds for long, though, and the whole thing paints the FDA in an incredibly negative light—slow to react, uncaring, incompetent and in the pocket of Big Pharma.
Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée is in control of the proceedings, easier said than done with this topic. He understands that this is by and large an actor's exercise, and he avoids the usual pratfalls that accompany a lot of Very Serious Social Movies. AIDS, in fact, is not treated any differently than cancer would be. It's a killer in this film, not a cause. And while his actors upped their games by dropping significant weight, he doesn't push that into the spotlight. However, both McConaughey and Leto are downright wraithlike. It hurts to watch them move.
Both McConaughey and Leto just received worthy Oscar nominations, but they'll have to go head-to-head with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in their respective categories.
The screenplay gets a tiny bit preachy, clanging that bell about the big, bad FDA, but it's a minor ripple in an otherwise excellent film. Woodroof's final years are a fascinating story that time had forgotten. But largely thanks to McConaughey's portrayal, that's not likely to happen again anytime soon.
Dallas Buyers Club opens at the Carmike 12 Fri., Jan. 24.