Films can be lifted by their performances, just as careers can be resurrected by the embrace of difficult choices. Though grounded by a resonant real-life story of struggle and survival, Dallas Buyers Club offers an example of both. A stirring but standard and narratively, thematically selective feature is lifted by the efforts of Academy Award-nominated stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, just as the actors cement their cinematic resurgence with challenging roles that have rightfully been awarded with ample accolades.
Rustling his way around the rodeo circuit, and hustling his way into electrical work in-between, the slurring, sneering Ron Woodroof (McConaughey, The Wolf of Wall Street) acts first and asks questions later. His free-wheeling approach to life is thrown into disarray when a sudden illness begets an unexpected diagnosis and a solemn death sentence. Woodroof refuses to take his HIV-positive status in the lay-down-and-give-up manner pushed upon him – by the bulk of medical professionals, and by the lack of effective care available. Dedicated doctor Eve (Jennifer Garner, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) and similarly-afflicted sufferer Rayon (Leto, Mr Nobody) become his unlikely support system as he starts scouring the globe for treatment and peddling unapproved drugs to fellow patients throughout Texas.
Dallas Buyers Club introduces its protagonist in the heat of anonymous passion, presents his rallying cries of “ain’t nothing out there that can kill Ron Woodroof in thirty days” as a badge of humour, and shows the indulgence and arrogance that follows as a coping mechanism; in Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s (Mirror Mirror) screenplay based on actual figures and events, there’s no mistaking its focal point as an ever-contradictory, not-always-pleasant character. His transformation into a crusader for access to life-extending pharmaceuticals stems from self-preservation, not from benevolence. His widening social circle, encompassing those he once openly admonished for their preferences, is a product of necessity, not a changing mindset. Woodroof becomes a hero in his establishment of the eponymous organisation, one of many throughout the country, but his flaws are never forgotten.
That’s where McConaughey’s continued cinematic prowess plays its part, as gaunt and galvanising as he has ever been, and never less than committed to Woodroof’s fightings and failings. Determination settles into his part as the thirty-day countdown comes and goes, but drive is always evident in a portrayal that essays bold bravado, unembellished empathy and finessed fragility with conviction. The fluid McConaughey has enjoyed a stellar run of late, shifting from The Lincoln Lawyer to Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Bernie, The Paperboy, Mud and TV’s True Detective with ease – and while his work in Dallas Buyers Club can just be seen as yet another excellent display in his rejuvenated career, it is no less impressive for its current recurrence. The conflict that ruminates in Woodroof’s situation and new surroundings is as substantial as his confidence in forging forward without fear. The combination is never anything other than complex and commanding.
Leto likewise earns the audience’s fierce attention, his turn as Woodroof’s transgender business partner both showier and more subtle in its respective ways. In a part that radiates from appearances and rallies against poor dialogue, he perfects the surface and the sadness underneath; an evident supporting role, he never overwhelms nor stays in the shadows. His is one of two such pillars of performance and physicality that director Jean-Marc Vallée (Café de Flore) carefully builds an otherwise austere feature around, and one of the film’s obvious elevating aspects. The filmmaker’s aesthetic flair, so amply essayed in previous efforts including The Young Victoria and C.R.A.Z.Y., is otherwise subdued on a subject that requires gravity rather than expressiveness, although his penchant for the heightened use of music, most pointedly in T. Rex, remains evident.
The disconnection between the players and their portrait may be unmistakable, as Dallas Buyers Club hangs on its central pairing, yet an effective feature still emanates. Convention reigns in everything outside the outcast characters and their against-the-odds fight, but emotion creeps along with it. The resulting film may be better as a close up than as a wide fshot; however its strength of spirit, as sparked by McConaughey and Leto, still reverberates.
Dallas Buyers Club is released in Australia on February 13th.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner.