In Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey continues on his trajectory of wise career choices by playing a man diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live. It’s loosely based on the true story of Mr. Ron Woodruff, whose plight does make for a powerful and inspirational tale. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the film as though it does feature an absolutely terrific turn from its leading man (and Jared Leto in a supporting role), the rest of it kind of falters under the weighty performances from its two stars.
As mentioned above, the film follows Ron Woodroof, a man living in Texas in 1986, a time when homophobia is running rampant (especially in that part of the country). It’s also at a time when not much is known about AIDS or its treatment. When Ron is diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live, the once homophobe, womanizing, hard-living cowboy does a complete 180 and decides to dedicate what few days he has left to fighting the virus.
Eventually, Ron discovers that the treatments provided in the US are not only useless but also, potentially harmful. Convinced that there must be another way, he discovers alternate/unapproved medications from around the world. It’s at this point that he decides to wage a one man war against the FDA by starting a business that sells memberships that allows those with HIV to buy Ron’s newfound drugs. Hence the title, Dallas Buyers Club.
It’s no secret that McConaughey became tired of the harsh treatment from critics that he’d been receiving his whole career and in 2011 decided to turn things around. What started with the brilliant Killer Joe soon became a complete re-emergence for the actor, one that solidified him as a bonafide leading man who can put out seriously good performances when he tried.
Dallas Buyers Club fits nicely onto McConaughey’s current roll of truly fantastic acting. Shedding 38 pounds to play the character, the lengths that the actor went to in order to truly inhabit Ron Woodroof are not only impressive, but surely awards worthy. He’s shockingly thin here and from a pure physical level, he certainly looks like someone who is fighting AIDS. On an emotional level, the actor also succeeds as he has to pull off the tricky balancing act of coming off as a trashy, unlikeable and rough around the edges type man at first, but then transforms into a true hero and someone who we can root for and fully sympathize with. It really is a tour de force performance and one that people will be talking about for a long time to come.
As astonishing as McConaughey’s performance is, I’d say that Jared Leto matches him every step of the way and at times, may even steal the spotlight. Though we haven’t seen him in front of a camera for some time (well, aside from in his music videos), Leto is brilliant and riveting as Rayon, a transvestite who becomes business partners with Woodroof once he starts selling the drugs. It’s hard to take your eyes off of him and there is no doubt in my mind that he’s a shoe in for a Best Supporting Actor nomination comes this year’s Oscars.
This is a film that rests heavily upon its two lead performers, and luckily they both deliver. Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not. While Woodroof’s story certainly seems like an interesting one, it’s rarely fleshed out enough to make it engaging. There’s very little context given to the events that we watch unfold and thus, there’s not much of an emotional hook, which there should be in a film like this. Now, that’s not to say that this is a bad film, because it’s not. Not by any means. It just feels very empty and hollow once you strip away the tremendous acting.
It’s interesting too, because in an interview with the director, Jean-Marc Vallee, he told me that while Ron Woodroof is of course, a real person, and that the basic premise of the film is true (Ron got sick with HIV and started a buyers club), everything else was fictionalized. None of the characters, besides Ron, were real. And that’s how it feels. It all feels just a bit too convenient and thus, contrived.
Speaking of Jean-Marc Vallee, his direction is assured and he stretches his $4.9 million budget well. He also makes the most of his 25 day shoot and gives the film an authentic, gritty atmosphere, which does help. Unfortunately though, nothing he does can overcome the very thin script, which fails to deliver any sort of emotional payoff.
Unfortunately, Dallas Buyers Club is little more than a showcase for McConaughey and Leto. Now, that’s necessarily a bad thing, as the acting here is quite impressive, it’s just that without these two extraordinary talents, the film wouldn’t amount to very much. Still, even though the performances are the only real reason to see the film, they are probably enough of a reason to warrant a watch.