Sunday, November 10, 2013

Movie Review: "Dallas Buyers Club"

I remember watching A Time to Kill back in the mid-1990s and thinking that Matthew McConaughey was a pretty talented actor, an opinion reinforced shortly thereafter when I saw the little-known indie film Lone Star. Then it seemed as if he started to be known more for his often-shirtless (not that there's anything wrong with that) performances as a wisecracking slacker or ladies' man, as well as his bongo-drum-playing antics off-screen, and I wondered whether the early promise he showed was just a fluke.

But in the last several years, McConaughey is proving himself an actor to be reckoned with, in addition to being easy on the eyes. His performances in Magic Mike, Bernie, The Lincoln Lawyer, and Mud have been terrific, and finally have him being mentioned in the same sentence with those actors of his generation known for their talent first.

With Dallas Buyers Club, he seals the deal. Based on a true story, McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a hard-partying Texas electrician, who loves a good rodeo as much as he loves hookers, alcohol, and cocaine. In 1985, just as America learned that Rock Hudson was dying of AIDS, Woodroof gets the surprise of his life when he is diagnosed as HIV positive and told by doctors that he has 30 days to live. Needless to say, he doesn't take this revelation well, as he doesn't want anyone to think he's gay. "And there ain't nothing that's gonna kill Ron Woodroof," he exclaims as he leaves the hospital defiantly.

But when reality sets in, he realizes he's in need of AZT, which is being tested in hospitals around the U.S. Refused a place in the clinical trials by his doctors (Denis O'Hare and Jennifer Garner), he bribes a hospital orderly to steal the drug for him, which he proceeds to take with a bourbon-and-cocaine chaser. When his supply of the drug runs out, he heads to Mexico, where he finds himself under the care of an unlicensed doctor (Griffin Dunne, in shaggy hippie mode), who treats him with non-FDA-approved vitamin supplements and proteins. During his recuperation in Mexico, Ron has his "aha" moment—he can sell these drugs to the growing number of HIV and AIDS patients in Dallas.

Teaming up with transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto, looking luminously skeletal), who can get the homophobic Woodroof access to the gay community he continues to alienate, the pair forms a "buyers club," in which people pay money as membership dues in order to have access to the drugs they so desperately need. Of course, Woodroof continues to run afoul of O'Hare's character, who plays the unsympathetic role as the doctor pushing the only approved treatment, AZT, which is actually turning out to harm patients in the short term, as well as FDA officers, who throw every roadblock they can in Woodroof's way.

Much has been made about McConaughey's drastic weight loss for this role, and he really looks unrecognizable at times, resembling the gaunt Christian Bale in The Machinist. But while his appearance is an initial shock, he so fully pulls you into his performance that you only notice his appearance as his battle to survive intensifies. His character is an unappealing one, but his transformation doesn't seem forced, but more borne from the transformation that necessity has forced upon him, much like Denzel Washington's character in Philadelphia.

Leto, too, underwent a drastic transformation in his appearance, and his performance is probably the best of his career, definitely the strongest since Requiem for a Dream. It's a shame that his acting career has often played second fiddle to his music and his odd off-screen behavior, because he definitely has a tremendous amount of talent. While Garner has a few strong moments as Woodroof's doctor, torn between the hospital bureaucracy she knows she must follow, and her desire to do the right thing for her patients, this movie belongs to McConaughey and Leto.

While Dallas Buyers Club follows the predictable path you'd expect it to, and it feels a little slow at times, its emotional power is still strong and affecting. While McConaughey was overlooked last year for an Oscar nomination, I really hope that between this performance and his already-heralded supporting role in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (to be released later this year), he won't be left off the nominations list this year. And I'd love to see Leto's name as one in contention as well.

Not a happy movie, but one definitely worth seeing.

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