‘Dallas Buyers Club’ creates collision of homophobia and HIV

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Remember when Matthew McConaughey was best known as the stylishly optimistic Mr. Right with a surfer-cowboy drawl? The one who starred in romantic comedies based around improbable meetings with Kate Hudson or Jennifer Lopez? It seems McConaughey sure doesn’t.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is the latest in his recent line of intense roles that include the darkly psychological “Killer Joe” and “Mud.” To say McConaughey embodies the role of the boozing, homophobic Ron Woodroof would not come close to justice. He lives in it, completely at ease with abandoning any previous pretty-boy image. The result is a haunted, swaggering performance of a man diagnosed as HIV-positive in the mid-1980s — a time when little medical aid existed. Woodroof’s bigoted machismo burns like stoked fire when he asks his doctor incredulously, “You think I’m some kind of homosexual?” McConaughey masterfully turns Woodroof’s stung pride and anger into a rallying determination to survive that the audience can’t help but get behind.

Standing directly in his way is the tragically inefficient and corrupt FDA and pharmaceutical companies that offer financial incentives for hospitals that accelerate testing trials. Drugs that potentially help kill the patients they’re meant to treat are approved. Woodroof quickly becomes the David to the FDA’s Goliath, distributing better medicine that he smuggles across the Mexican border due to their lack of official approval. He forms the Dallas Buyers Club, a black-market, members-only affair that grants those in need access to the pills (but not without paying a fee, of course).

Rivaling McConaughey’s immersion into character is Jared Leto, who plays Woodroof’s accidental business partner, Rayon. In every way, the caring, cross-dressing Rayon is the foil to Woodroof’s “man’s man” mentality, but the two are united by their mutual uphill battle against their diagnoses. It would have been easy for Leto to channel over-the-top stereotypes, but instead, he gives the character a restrained, multilayered incarnation. Rayon likes Woodroof even when Woodroof doesn’t like himself, and this keeps the film firmly grounded in humanity. Jennifer Garner is the prim and proper Dr. Saks, a sympathetic ear at the hospital who can’t give Woodroof the help he needs. The story tries hard to force them together as love interests but luckily spends the most time where it counts: on Woodroof’s desire to live and how facing mortality changes him.

French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee navigates the emotional terrain of characters living constantly on the edge with raw earnestness. He indulges in presenting Woodroof’s hard-living lifestyle only when it’s necessary to provide contrast for the health-obsessed person he must become if he wants to live past his 30-day deadline. The camera is handheld and roaming, thematically indicative of the unstable ground the characters must learn to get by on.  A good portion of the film serves as a character study of a proud cowboy in Texas who is gripped by a disease he sees as symbolic of everything he hates. Vallee revels in this and draws subtle parallels between Woodroof’s bull-riding hobby and his staring AIDS head-on. Woodroof is soon ostracized by the greasy roughnecks he formerly called his friends, like a wounded animal abandoned by its pack. But Woodroof is open to adapting, and Vallee shows us sometimes endurance is the most powerful tool for survival.

In an Oscar season populated with other films derived from true stories, such as “12 Years a Slave” and “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club” easily distinguishes itself as one of the most human. McConaughey’s tour-de-force performance is well-deserving of the Best Actor nomination he’s guaranteed to get. He’s come a long way since “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.”

Contact Ryan Koehn at [email protected].