As recently as three years ago, it would have been hard to imagine Matthew McConaughey as a hot favourite for a Best Actor Oscar. He’d made his name as a good-looking hunk in the disastrous adventure epic Sahara, and then a series of wretchedly poor romantic comedies (Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold). It felt easy to pigeonhole him as a performer who wasn’t particularly noteworthy or interesting.
But his self-reinvention since then has been remarkable, and in films like Magic Mike, Mud and the recent Wolf of Wall Street, this Texas-born actor has become a man to watch. He has lost weight, and traded in his puppyish good looks for a leaner, gaunt appearance.
Still, none of this prepares you for his terrific star turn in Dallas Buyers Club, playing a macho Texan rodeo cowboy and oil field worker named Ron Woodroof. The story, based on real events, starts in 1986, when the Aids epidemic was raging. He is informed that he has Aids, and has just 30 days to live. The news comes as an affront to him; he’s avowedly heterosexual. But we have already seen him in a discreetly shot scene, under the rodeo bleachers, in a fateful sexual encounter with two women.
Despite his unwise lifestyle choices – he’s also a cocaine user and a chain-smoker - Woodroof is a resolute type who refuses to accept his fate as inevitable. He throws himself into researching alternative therapies for Aids over the border in Mexico, and sets up a ‘buyers club’ for other Americans afflicted by Aids, importing medicines and selling them – though on the legal technicality that clients are only buying a membership for a ‘club’ that dispenses pills for free.
He ends up travelling far and wide to seek out foreign drug treatments that the US government’s Food and Drug Administration is too timid or unambitious to investigate. We gets a strong sense here of a man who, having lived a shallow, pleasure-seeking, thoughtless life, comes to redeem himself.
Yet there’s another development in Woodroof’s life: his desperate mission to find an antidote to Aids changes his outlook on life and softens his intolerance. Predictably he is homophobic, and is initially repulsed by Rayon, a drag queen with Aids (played magnificently by Jared Leto). But he gradually arrives at a grudging admiration for the calm, witty resilience of Rayon, who introduces him to potential ‘club’ members.
Woodroof also strikes up a respectful relationship with a female doctor (Jennifer Garner) who sympathises with his attempts to overcome bureaucracy and find effective treatments; in their scenes he is more courtly and romantic than in any of his previous encounters with women.
There’s a harsh, tough edge to this story; Dallas Buyers Club is no-one’s idea of bland, inoffensive entertainment. But it packs a real dramatic punch, and it’s an endorsement of the complications and contradictions all human beings share.
Above all, it’s a triumph for McConaughey, lean and mean beneath his Stetson, behind aviator shades, in a state of impatient fury in his race for life. Now he is odds-on to lift a best actor Oscar; while Leto, whose career seemed to have peaked in his teens, when he co-starred with Clare Danes in My So-Called Life, a lovely TV series about high-school kids, is the hot favourite to be named best supporting actor. How perfect if they pull it off: two actors making comebacks and succeeding against all odds, by playing characters who are doing precisely the same.
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