Is there an actor who’s had a better last few years than Matthew McConaughey? Though he used to be somewhat of a punch line, known more for his shirtless roles in flaky rom-coms than his promising earlier work, recently McConaughey has been repairing his reputation with a string of outstanding performances in films like “Killer Joe,” “Magic Mike” and “Mud.” And while he earned his share of acclaim for all three roles, the actor’s latest turn as real-life AIDS victim Ron Woodruff might just be the crowning achievement of his career thus far. “Dallas Buyers Club” isn’t the kind of movie that would normally attract this much Oscar buzz – at least with such a generic script and uninspired direction – but it benefits from a couple of great performances that demand to be seen.
In 1985, the AIDS epidemic was front page news, but many people, including Texas electrician Ron Woodruff (McConaughey), were under the impression that it was a disease only passed between homosexuals. So when Ron is diagnosed as HIV-positive and given 30 days to live (note: he ended up surviving seven more years), he doesn’t believe it at first. Shunned by his friends and unable to get on the hospital’s drug trial list, Ron takes matters into his own hands by crossing the border into Mexico to purchase some non-FDA approved drugs that are more effective. Realizing a business opportunity when he sees one, Ron begins importing the meds to Texas to sell to other HIV/AIDS victims on the street. But when the government catches wind of his operation, he teams up with a transgender prostitute named Rayon (Jared Leto) to create a “buyers club” where they sell memberships and give away the drugs for free, exonerating themselves of any legal trouble.
McConaughey’s dramatic physical transformation in “Dallas Buyers Club” has captured most of the headlines surrounding the film, but while the actor’s rumored 50-pound weight loss is certainly shocking, it’s only a part of his excellent performance. When we’re first introduced to Ron, he’s having sex with two women in the stables at a rodeo, and moments later, he’s entertaining his buddies with homophobic remarks about actor Rock Hudson. The point is that Ron isn’t exactly an upstanding guy, but the movie is just as much about him changing his lifestyle and gaining compassion for his homosexual clients as it is about his struggle with the disease, and McConaughey does an extraordinary job of making every emotional beat in the character’s arc feel earned, even if that’s not always the case.
Ron’s relationship with Rayon is one of the film’s highlights, thanks not only to McConaughey, but Leto as well, who reminds you what he’s capable of when given the right material. Leto also lost a disturbing amount of weight for the role (and it’s not the first time he’s sacrificed his body for a movie), but it obviously paid off, because this is the best he’s been in a long time. Sadly, the same can’t be said of Jennifer Garner, who’s wasted in a thankless role as a doctor with reservations about the HIV drug she’s testing at the hospital. In fact, nothing else about “Dallas Buyers Club” is particularly memorable, despite the fact that it deals with hot-button issues like AIDS, the health care industry and homosexuality. That poses a bit of a problem, because although it’s a pretty incredible story with a strong message, apart from McConaughey and Leto, the movie is unremarkably average.