The Matthew McConaughey revival is turning into one of the great cinema stories of our generation; the once-jaded rom-com star has turned his career around in truly impressive style, moving from schlocky rubbish to arthouse chic in a matter of a couple of years. His turns in Magic Mike and Mud garnered praise from critics, and he is now the odds-on favourite to add an Oscar to this haul of accolades, with Dallas Buyers Club a huge success critically and commercially in the US.
The film is good enough to justify the buzz it’s been accompanied by as it opens in the UK, for once, and McConaughey’s performance is really a superb one. He plays Ron Woodroof, a homophobic bundle of machismo in the US south, who is blindsided by a diagnosis of HIV, a disease he considers reserved for homosexuals. Given thirty days to live, he initially goes on a binge of drugs and meaningless sexual contact, but then starts to react against the hopeless situation the medical professionals have presented him with. He embarks on a variety of journeys to a variety of countries to secure alternative medication to the controversial drug he was initially prescribed, AZT, and has to deal with the litigious and obstructive input of the FDA while he does so.
The central performance is a hugely impressive one from McConaughey veers from huge vulnerability and weakness into bravado and false confidence at a moment’s notice, and is constantly riveting. When Woodroof eventually gains a measure of wisdom and calmness it feels like a victory in characterisation, and a heartening moment for the audience. Equally impressive is Jared Leto, as Rayonne, a transgender woman who Ron befriends, whose reach extends into the LGBTQ community Woodroof is so repulsed by. He and McConaughey have both lost a frightening amount of weight to fit their roles, and the instances when they are changing or stretching out leave horrifying images of skeletal bodies behind, to remind the audience of the situation these impressive people find themselves in.
The supporting work from Leto is highly likely to win the singer an Oscar, and McConaughey is well-backed to gain the Best Actor gong, at the expense of the slightly more deserving Chiwetel Ejiofor. They are both on top form, and Jennifer Garner is convincing as well, as the primary medical presence in Ron’s life, his doctor Eve Saks, who has serious reservations about AZT but no license to do anything about it. The serious subject matter might have attracted goads of Oscar-baiting, but the film is so well-made and heartfelt that such slurs haven’t really surfaced, and nor should they. The AIDS crisis is treated very maturely, and it is not the absolute centre of the film – it obviously drives the action, but Dalls Buyers Club does not seek to educate too much at the expense of immersion. Some knowledge is assumed, and much is implied and learned through organic inclusion, but it never feels like a documentary (that hole has been recently filled by How to Survive a Plague, which will screen at the Keble Arts Festival this term).
Dallas Buyers Club is a superb film, led by an impressive cast, and will deserve the Oscars it will most likely gain – even if, for me, Twelve Years a Slave will deserve some of them a mite more.
Dallas Buyers Club is now showing at the Phoenix Picturehouse.