Paraphrasing my friend Carrie after watching this movie, it’s hard to find anything to complain about when you’ve just seen the first few years of the AIDS epidemic flash before your eyes in graphic, skeletal detail. Dallas Buyers Club is a feisty masterpiece of a film.
My goodness, our boy Matthew McConaughey has come a long way from his rom-com days. He’s absolutely killing it right now with his role choices and his complete and total immersion into them. It’s almost impossible to believe that, last year at this time, we were seeing him strut around in a yellow tank top-bike shorts combo, teaching little Alex Pettyfer to dirty dance. He’s reinvented himself yet again, using only his Southern drawl as a breadcrumb for us to follow into a completely different world. It’s a dark one, so get ready.
MM is Ron Woodroof, a cowboy and a player who gets stricken with AIDS after… actually, it doesn’t matter. He did a lot of bad shit, and when he realizes that “bad shit” is not limited to “being gay,” it’s a truly beautiful, sobering moment. Woodroof is a man’s man, but his descent into illness and simultaneous liberation from bigotry give us left-leaners something to hope for in this ever-partisan world we live in, particularly because Woodroof the character is based on the story of a real guy by the same name.
Woodroof spends a little time feeling sorry for himself, and a whole lot of time doing the research and helping his fellow AIDS-sufferers get the medicine they need. That medicine, unfortunately, hadn’t yet been approved by the FDA; in addition to illuminating the physical extremes that the disease takes its afflicted to, it also highlights just how dangerous bureaucracy can be to healthcare. (Well timed, Jean-Marc Vallee et al.) He forms a club with a $400 annual fee that includes unlimited drugs from all over the world, drugs that have been proven to work everywhere but in the US of A, and he watches the healing begin. Of course, the drugs are nowhere near a cure, but they’re certainly life-extenders and quality-improvers, and hope-givers, most of all.
McConaughey is his usual magnetic self, except gaunt-er and frail-er. His pants hang loosely around his bony waist, his muscles are mostly vein, and his Adam’s apple bobs up and down. Half of his big emotions are expressed through his insides, which you can see through his skin. AIDS is not a friendly virus; it isolates you, it shuts you down, it makes you regret every decision you’ve ever made. This much was apparent in McConaughey’s face, and in the faces of the other actors playing ill. I’d be surprised if McConaughey didn’t earn his first of inevitably many Oscar nominations from this turn; I just hope people see it as more than a lose-weight-gain-statue situation, because the story he told is a necessary, brutal one.
I’d be even more surprised if Jared Leto didn’t get a supporting actor nod for his turn as Rayon, transsexual sweetie pie. Leto’s performance is quite possibly even more tragic than McConaughey’s if only for the backstory given to this character. Here’s a guy, already blessed with feminine features and a relatively soft voice, who just wants to live life as a woman, and he’s got the unfortunate luck of having been born in a conservative state with square, unaccepting parents. Rayon is absolutely hopeless, and very difficult not to fall in love with, no matter your preference. She is essential to Woodroof’s transformation, and the heart behind his brains for the DBC. I also really enjoyed Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks, an uptight physician who really warms to Woodroof’s cause, partially thanks to her friendship with Rayon. And seeing other character-actor staples pop up–Denis O’Hare, Dallas Roberts, Kevin Rankin–even in close-minded roles was a welcome surprise.
Vallee balanced the stark, sterile hospital imagery with a few random, artistic dalliances, and it softened the tone of the movie just so. In one scene, Woodroof walks into a room of butterflies, without any explanation before or after. It’s weird, but upon reflection, completely necessary. This is an independent movie, not a blockbuster or a documentary, and even though it’s based in truth, it is still art, and Vallee wants us to see Woodroof experiencing some sort of specific, isolated joy, because he’s going to tear us down for most of the movie anyway. I left the theater elated and paranoid, knowing that there are leads on cures out there somewhere, and scientists and advocates strong enough to discover and fight for them, but there will always be a daunting biological battle to fight.