Even those who may have tired of the actor’s egocentric, strutting mannerisms will have to admit everything works perfectly in this role. He was born for it.
Playing a homophobic Texas redneck and hell-raiser named Ron Woodroof with a mean streak in words if not deeds, McConaughey slips into the role with a come-to-papa ease. As almost everyone now knows, McConaughey underwent an alarming weight loss to play Woodroof, an early victim of the HIV virus who refused to go quietly.
In fact, Woodroof wound up not only challenging the medical profession in its approach to the disease, he provided desperately needed meds to the gay/transgender community he once thoroughly despised. In so doing he became a reluctant folk hero.
Almost as well known as McConaughey’s weight loss is the other kind of wait — meaning the two decades it took to get this film about Ron Woodroof made. While this reflects the disturbing timidity of Hollywood to embrace movies of substance over remakes, sequels and reboots, the wait in this particular case was worth it — for thanks to the delays Matthew McConaughey got to play Ron.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect fit of actor and role.
Under the guidance of the fine Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée (“C.R.A.Z.Y.,” “The Young Victoria”), Ron begins the movie as almost a caricature of a Matthew McConaughey role — an abrasive, cock-sure good ol’ boy whose charms are only superseded by his narcissism.
A Dallas electrician and rodeo cowboy by trade, he is first glimpsed in a sexual three-way with trashy rodeo groupies in an empty holding pen.
An electrical accident sends him to a hospital where a routine blood test reveals he is HIV-positive. Two doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner) give him about 30 days to live. He reacts angrily to the diagnosis as a slur on his heterosexuality.
But the reality of the illness — he is already skin and bones and becomes more skeletal as the movie progresses — forces him to take action. Unwilling to take part in clinical trials for the new drug AZT at the hospital, where he may be given a placebo, he buys contraband doses from an orderly until that supply is exhausted.
He then slips across the border into Mexico, where an unlicensed Yank doctor (Griffin Dunne, quite good), distrustful of AZT due to its toxic side effects, is seeing good results with a regimen of vitamins and anti-viral drugs.
Despite his dire health, Ron, always a hustler. senses a business opportunity. Beginning with the smuggling of all sort of vitamins and meds into Texas for a growing clientele, he expands his operation by traveling overseas from the Netherlands to Japan.
Since he is unfamiliar, to say the least, with the gay community most in need of such meds, he partners with a junkie transsexual he met in the hospital, Rayon (Jared Leto, truly amazing, with a similar weight loss and unrecognizable in the drag get-up).
Thus, the movie is well situated for an engrossing character study of two unusual people in a life-or-death struggle with AIDS, a scathing examination of an American medical establishment that failed to address the pandemic and a change in attitude by a homophobic male about his own intolerance.
None of these subplots takes an easy, feel-good route. The Ron/Rayon relationship is handled without sentimentality or b.s. Neither changes his promiscuous habits; rather mutual needs slowly transform into respect and tolerance.
The medical community including drug companies are treated fairly enough as drugs need clinical trials to gain FDA approval. Yet its lethargic reaction to a health crisis is downright irresponsible.
Garner’s role feels like one of those composite characters created by moviemakers to voice attitudes regarding a protagonist and his activities. She always sees Ron’s point of view and the merit in what he’s doing. She is equally distressed by her boss’ acquiesce to drug companies in exchange for easy money earned by conducting clinical trials. Only slowly does she come over to Ron’s side.
One friend said he thought the movie “ran out of plot” before the third act. This is true in one sense but in other ways this becomes the most interesting part. Ron’s racket once established takes place at a fascinating intersection of self-interest, enterprise and altruism.
So much can be read into the Dallas Buyers Club in this regard. Always trying to stay one step ahead of the FDA, IRS, and DEA’s efforts to shut him down, Ron insists those in need buy not drugs but monthly membership in his club, which then allows unrestricted access to a daily regimen of meds.
Whatever one’s attitude about the movie’s later developments, what remains front and center and always compelling is McConaughey’s performance.
Ron doesn’t just refuse to die, he capitalizes on an opportunity. He makes few concessions to his former personality, i.e., his neck remains red, his methods abrasive and his behavior often self-destructive.
He remains, in other words, true to himself even as he undergoes a magical transformation.
The sad thing though is that even as it’s releasing the film, Focus Features is undergoing its own transformation that bodes poorly for its continued involvement in the indie scene. Its CEO, James Schamus, was forced out recently as the new ownership at NBC/Universal is evidently intent on focusing on more mainstream and genre films.
So even as Focus Features will take bows for the almost certain Oscar nom for McConaughey and probably Leto too, the company is swiftly becoming one that would no longer be interested in provocative subjects such as “The Dallas Buyers Club.”
Opens: November 1, 2013 (Focus Features)
Production companies: Focus Features and Truth Entertainment presents a Voltage Pictures/R2 Films/Evolution Independent production
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O’Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin, Donna Duplantier, Deneen Tyler
Production companies: Voltage Pictures, R2 Films, Evolution Independent
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenwriters: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Producers: Robbie Brenner, Rachel Winter
Executive producers: David Bushell, Nathan Ross, Tony Notargiacomo, Joe Newcomb, Nicolas Chartier, Zev Foreman, Logan Levy, Holly Wiersma, Cassian Elwes
Director of photography: Yves Belanger
Production designer: John Paino
Costume designers: Kurt and Bart
Editors: John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa
R rating, 116 minutes.