Movie-star trajectories don’t usually work like Matthew McConaughey’s. Important actors traditionally make the films for which they’re remembered early on, and then run out the career clock doing work fans wish they could forget. To appreciate the anomaly McConaughey has become, it’s helpful to compare his output over the past few years with that of, say, Robert De Niro.
Since 2010, the legendary thespian’s highlights have included two direct-to-video duds (Freelancers and Killing Season), Little Fockers, The Big Wedding, The Family and Last Vegas. Coming up in 2014: Grudge Match with Sylvester Stallone. Two rivals come out of retirement for one last fight. Get it? Raging Bull versus Rocky. They should call this one before the first round even starts.
Precisely the same case could be made by substituting the late-in-the-game work of anyone from Richard Burton to Marlon Brando. In contrast, McConaughey has spent the same period eclipsing his decades of dumb romantic comedies (two — count ’em — with Kate Hudson) by taking on increasingly ambitious roles in pictures such as Bernie, Killer Joe, Mud and Magic Mike. Coming up in 2014: Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s trippy follow-up to Inception, in which explorers traverse the cosmos through wormholes.
Nothing better exemplifies the actor’s professional metamorphosis than the force-of-nature performance he gives in Dallas Buyers Club. You’ve seen the tabloid shots of McConaughey so skeletal it’s unclear what’s holding his pants up. Now you can see the reason he put himself through such a punishing transformation. And you should. Even if the movie isn’t quite as excellent as he is.
Directed by Montréaler Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria) from a script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, the film tells the liberally embellished story of Ron Woodroof, a real-life Texas party animal who found himself facing a death sentence when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. Straight and crazy about whiskey, coke, rodeos, speed and loose women — not necessarily in that order — Woodroof insists adamantly that his doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner) have made a mistake. Then a visit to the library puts him wise to the perils of intravenous drug use and unprotected sex.
Given 30 days to live, Woodroof does his homework and sets about rustling up substances with a better chance of offering him a reprieve than the treatment to which the FDA (the movie’s villain) has given its blessing. Research alerts him to the existence of unapproved but effective substances, which he’s forced to smuggle in from Mexico and other countries. The long-lost Griffin Dunne is great as Woodroof’s south-of-the-border connection.
Basically Lorenzo’s Oil meets Urban Cowboy — only the bulls are real — the film itself is a boilerplate heart tugger about a foul-mouthed homophobe who overcomes his prejudices. Its creators play fast and loose with the facts (while Woodroof was a rodeo fan, he never actually rode) and make up one central character altogether. Jared Leto is spectacular in the role of Rayon, the colorful, cross-dressing AIDS victim with whose help Woodroof starts selling virus-fighting cocktails out of a seedy motel. Like a lot of things in Dallas Buyers Club, Rayon is just a little too good to be true.
McConaughey’s performance, however, is not one of those things. This is the real deal, 180 degrees removed from the approach Tom Hanks took in Philadelphia (set in the same year), but not an iota less convincing. The combination of that cadaverous visage, redneck rage and cowboy cockiness yields an affecting portrait of a complex man defying the odds — and the authorities — by figuring out how to survive a plague while Big Pharma worked on making a buck off it.
* Running time: 117 min.
* Rated: R
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