Sometimes, it's hard to remember that Matthew McConaughey is a great actor. It's not just that he went through a phase where he did nothing but strut around the beach with no shirt on 24 hours-a-day playing the bongos and wearing crystals. It's that he did a string of really bad movies there for a while. Movies like Failure to Launch, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, The Wedding Planner, Sahara, Fool's Gold; these films are enough to write off someone as Hollywood blather and described as anything BUT an actor. But under that pile of silliness is the same guy who kicked ass in Contact, Amistad, A Time to Kill, Frailty. And lately, he's been on a tear with great performances in Mud, Magic Mike and Killer Joe. But would Dallas Buyers Club continue the winning streak? It does...in spades!
In the film, McConaughey plays a real person named Ron Woodruff, who was a straight, homophobic, good ol' rodeo boy from Texas who got AIDS in 1986 when it was widely believed that only gay men could get it. Instead of accepting his short life expectancy given to him, he seeks to medicate himself with non-FDA approved drugs from international sources and circumvents the government by then selling them to other people with AIDS. Through his self-preservation he learns to love the community he once hated and mocked and helps them fight for their right to choose whatever path they want to get better.
This is one of the best performances of McConaughey's career although he, once again, kinda plays himself. He manages to create a wonderful anti-hero who we learn to love as his transformation from bigot to man of the people takes place. The other stellar performance is from Jared Leto (Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream) who plays his transgender partner, Rayon. Their friendship is humorous and heartbreaking and is the soul of the film. It's devastating when you discover that Rayon was a character created by Hollywood to make the film more fun. Regardless, Leto knocks it out of the park and is even better than McConaughey; both deserve Oscar nominations. It makes you wish that Leto would stop pretending to be a rock star for 30 seconds (get the joke?) so we can remember that he's actually a really gifted actor.
Great performances are not the only reason you see this movie. Director Jean-Marc Vallee blew me away with his ability to step so far out of his comfort zone and capture what it was like to be a s**tkicker in Texas in the '80s. This is light years away from his period romances and adorable French films. The script is another reason to buy a ticket. A film about AIDS already feels too heavy for most people to swallow and knowing that McConaughey and Leto both lost so much weight that they look like walking skeletons makes it even worse but, I assure you, this film is fun. It has all the funny quips and show-stopping tearjerkers that Academy members love. It's a film that's handled with respect to the gay community (for the most part), tackles the difficult topic of AIDS in the '80s and does it all with a light approach. That's no easy task.
Dallas Buyers Club isn't for everyone and that might be one area that holds the film back come Oscar time. Academy members like films that are serious but still fun, touching yet don't depress us but they also like all that done in a PG-13 arena. Dallas Buyers Club is not that. They do the story justice with an R-rating and I'm glad that they did. Aside from some stereotypes and fictionalized characters to make the film more marketable, it's a story that needed to be told and one that sheds light on a moment in our history that is shameful and important.