Some day, a very wise Hollywood type will make a movie about the rise of Matthew McConaughey. Out of all the actors and actresses currently atop the A-list, he’s had one of the most fascinating career resurgences I’ve ever come across. When he first arrived on the scene back in the 1990s with A Time to Kill, we saw a talented fresh face, one full of promise. Then, the Hollywood money machine snatched him up, plastering his handsome features onto forgettable (at best) romantic comedies like The Wedding Planner, How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch. Need we revisit the Sahara era? Finally, after the paltry Ghosts of Girlfriends Past in 2009, McConaughey took a step back, and boy am I grateful he did. Two years later, when the actor returned with terrific performances in The Lincoln Lawyer and Bernie, he was better than ever. The “McConaissance,” as some called it, only grew more pronounced with Killer Joe and Magic Mike the next year.
This may seem like a long build-up to a review of Dallas Buyers Club, a film that all of you reading this already know is good – its six Oscar nominations don’t lie, nor do the Golden Globes already on McConaughey and co-star Jared Leto’s mantlepieces – but it serves a purpose. You see, as fantastic as almost everything around McConaughey is in Dallas Buyers Club, the movie is first and foremost a showcase for his acting abilities. Playing Ron Woodroof, a free-wheeling Texas cowboy suddenly diagnosed as HIV-positive, the actor doesn’t just continue his recent trend of breaking away from mainstream rom-coms. With his transformative performance, McConaughey proves himself as one of the finest actors working today.
That’s very high praise, but I’m convinced. The actor’s formidable commitment to character aside (he dropped 38 pounds to play the gaunt Woodroof), his portrayal of Woodruff is equal parts impressive and exhilarating. The character is very much an antihero, charming and scamming his way through life even after getting AIDS, then starting in on the drug-running business in hopes of making a quick buck off fellow HIV-positive individuals (at least at first), but his appeal as a protagonist is massive.
A born-and-bred cowboy, a rebel with a cause, a man who has stared death in the face and decided to fight it every inch of the way, Woodruff makes for a wonderful, dynamic lead. And McConaughey is so good that, even when he boozes, spouts slurs and snorts lines, Woodruff remains a hero worth cheering for. Physically, he’s shocking to behold, but the scraggly shoulders and waning smile add a bracing reality to the performance. When he swaggers onto the screen, carrying himself with the indomitable grace of a wounded warrior, you feel his pain, his rage and, most importantly, his fiery core. As the film progresses, Woodruff gains compassion for homosexual members of the “buyers club” he sets up, particularly the transgender Rayon (Leto), making it his mission to provide alternative treatments for all. McConaughey lets us inside the man’s head and shows us his transformation from doomed bigot to spirited fighter. It’s plainly beautiful to watch.
Also phenomenal is Leto, who had a potentially even greater physical challenge in taking on Rayon. Bold, wildly funny and completely heartbreaking, Leto turns in a passionate performance to rival McConaughey’s. It would have been scandalously easy for an actor to come in and paint Rayon with broad strokes, so it’s a tribute to Leto’s poise and ability as an actor that he makes no such mistake. With a keen attention to detail and unfailing energy, he hits it out of the park. It’s a total blast to watch Woodruff, fire in his eyes, and Rayon, defiant to the bitter end, strike up an unlikely friendship during the formation of the buyers club, and it would be shocking to me if both stars didn’t walk away with Oscar statuettes this year.
Dallas Buyers Club is filled with good actors buckling down to give powerful performances, from Jennifer Garner’s Dr. Eve Sacks to Michael O’Neill’s FDA agent Richard Barkley. The only issue that arises is balance – the film’s crackling, mostly excellent script builds a terrific story around Woodroof and Rayon, but it doesn’t leave a ton for the supporting cast to work with. Garner suffers the most, with her scenes feeling somewhat tacked-on, but all of the actors are able to put forth a few minutes of strong work, if not more.
There’s a lot of story to get through in the film, and director Jean-Marc Vallée deserves serious kudos for all the energy he brings. The film’s two hours zip by, from the efficient opening areas when Woodruff discovers his sickness to the lengthier scenes during which emotional catharses roll in like merciless waves. Ultimately, not a moment feels wasted. Vallée’s use of lighting is also particularly effective, lending the film’s mid-’80s setting a pleasing authenticity.
McConaughey and Leto are brilliant in Dallas Buyers Club, providing two of 2013’s most towering performances. The rest of the film is up to scratch as well, from engaging direction to a script that spins this unlikely true story into something far more indelible: a rousing, deeply moving celebration of the human spirit.
The Blu-Ray looks fantastic. Universal’s 1080p transfer is more than enough to preserve Vallée’s exceptionally warm and bright color palette, and it doesn’t fall into any home release pitfalls like banding or ringing. Detail is strong throughout, which is particularly noticeably in scenes with Leno’s transgender character. No complaints whatsoever – this is an effective transfer, professionally done.
Audio quality is also strong, if not overpowering. Dallas Buyers Club is entirely powered by its dialogue, and even that is sometimes muted (a directorial choice, not a transfer flaw), so there’s nothing showy about Universal’s 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track. Still, it does its job effectively, and I never noticed any issues with dialogue or the few background sounds.
The only disappointing part of reviewing this Blu-Ray, as well as the most disappointing part of my experience watching Dallas Buyers Club as a whole, is that Universal really dropped the ball in terms of special features. There’s almost nothing here, which is extremely frustrating given how much I loved the film. The Blu-Ray includes just two extras, which are:
- Deleted Scenes
- A Look Inside Dallas Buyers Club
Combined, the two features run just over a measly eight minutes. The deleted scenes, which run roughly half of that, include a lot of Garner’s Dr. Eve Sacks, easily the most underwritten character in the movie. It’s difficult to say for sure why Vallée opted to cut the scenes, which elaborate on her relationship with Rayna and depict her finally taking a stance against her son-of-a-bitch boss (Denis O’Hare), but I’d imagine it was one of two things. Vallée’s extremely tight direction is on display through all of Dallas Buyers Club, so it’s possible that he felt the scenes just didn’t add enough to the story to warrant inclusion. The other option is that he felt more scenes with Garner would be taking the spotlight away from his main star, McConaughey, for an unacceptable amount of time.
The second extra is also a disappointment. The title would suggest that we’re getting a behind-the-scenes featurette, but “A Look Inside Dallas Buyers Club” is actually just a glorified trailer. It features under a minute of commentary from McConaughey and Leto, during which neither actor has enough time to say anything interesting about the film or their characters, and viewers will still have all the featured footage fresh in their minds from watching the movie. It’s a dud.
Though I felt burned by the dearth of special features on the Dallas Buyers Club Blu-Ray, Universal has everything else in order, with a solid audiovisual transfer that doesn’t detract from the film’s considerable impact. Whether or not you pick up the Blu-Ray (and Vallée’s direction is interesting enough for me to recommend the higher-quality viewing experience), the most important thing is that you see Dallas Buyers Club. It offers the two best performances of 2013, as well as a bracing story that simultaneously uplifts and enlightens. However it may fare on Oscar night, Dallas Buyers Club is the most moving, unexpectedly rousing true-story drama currently competing for Best Picture.
Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are flat-out extraordinary, and so is this deeply affecting tribute to the triumphs of the human spirit.