I've been hugging myself practically all weekend.
Matthew McConaughey gives a career-defining performance as Ron Woodroof, the degenerate, homophobic, Texas redneck electrician--diagnosed in 1985 with full-blown AIDS--who takes on pharmaceutical companies and the U.S. government in his fight for life-extending medication. Every bit as much a revelation is Jared Leto (Fight Club, Mr. Nobody) as Rayon, the transsexual that Ron uses as a gateway to the gay community to sell non-FDA approved drugs from outside the U.S. to desperately ill customers.
That sounds like the stuff of a gravely serious "issue" movie, but it's so often funny and surprisingly entertaining to watch the wiry Woodroof that it only dawned on me much later on just how remarkable his inner transformation really is. He's a detestable weasel of a man off the top, spending free time away from his job in the oil fields gambling at the rodeo, boozing and drugging the rest of the time with rented girls for company. His life hits bottom when a work accident sends him to the hospital, where doctors diagnose him with AIDS and give him a month to live. They're shocked he's made it this far.
When the AZT he's been buying under the table from one of the hospital's janitors is put under lock and key, Woodroof is given a lead across the border in Mexico where a former U.S. physician played by Griffin Dunne (After Hours, Snow Angels) has set up shop. There he discovers that alternative antiretroviral drugs that may prolong his life better than AZT aren't available stateside due to restrictive laws written by lobbyists for big pharmaceutical companies, and passed by Congress, that have made it impossible for competing drugs to enter the market.
What begins as an entirely selfish quest by Woodroof to stay alive and then distribute pharmaceuticals for money eventually turns him into the unlikeliest of heroes the way he goes to bat for an entire community of people that make him squeamish through his own ignorant prejudice. Rayon is just another extension of his selfishness, using her as a bridge to his primary market. They set up shop at a local motel and hire a lawyer who helps them design the kind of buyers clubs that sprung up in New York and San Francisco at the time, where members receive non-approved drugs for "free" with the purchase of monthly memberships in a clever workaround of federal laws.
I love it when a movie comes along that convinces me I'm watching real people onscreen, not actors acting. When the mechanics of performance evolve into something closer to embodiment. Dorothy Michaels in "Tootsie" was played with such verve by Dustin Hoffman that I've often felt she deserved to reappear in her own movies. Charlize Theron was uncanny as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster", as was Hillary Swank as Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry", and Sean Penn disappeared into his role as America's first openly gay elected official in "Milk", the story of Harvey Milk.
"Dallas Buyers Club" is a movie that sits well in the company of those great ones. It sets totally original characters loose to live and breathe, and is wise enough to allow them to drive their own stories forward by the decisions they make, rather than constricting them with "plot". It can be said of too many movies that stuff "ends up happening" to characters, but not often enough can it be said that lives are being lived.
Matthew McConaughey is on the hottest streak of his career. In the last 18 months, we've seen him as ruthless "Killer Joe", as a stripper in "Magic Mike", a smooth-talking lawyer in the overlooked "Bernie", and as a killer on the run in "Mud", a great southern drama from earlier this year. As Ron Woodroof, he is so immersed in the part that like those earlier characters I mentioned from other movies, the performance jumps off the screen, alive with the spontaneity of real life inside a remarkable physical transformation that saw him lose 40-some odd pounds.
I know Jared Leto well as an actor, but it still took me the better part of his first scene before I made the connection. I think that's because it feels so uncannily like we're watching a real woman with the unfortunate circumstance of having been born with man parts. Both performances are not only shoo-ins for Oscar nominations; they must be favorites at this point.
Not to be overlooked is the empathic performance by Jennifer Garner as a doctor. When Ron and Rayon begin their venture, it feels like an underground racket that might not be safe, but we forgive them because of the urgency of their crisis. Garner's Dr. Eve Saks isn't made into a foil, but sees these things to be true as well and lends her guidance to the operation while trying to please her superiors, who appear to be more in service to their corporate slave-masters than to the general health and well-being of the public.
It would be well enough and good even if "Dallas Buyers Club" had settled for the sentimentality wrung from courtroom speechifying or by final deathbed moments. We almost expect the last act will lead us to such scenes, but when it didn't, I realized I was in the company of a great movie. "Dallas Buyers Club" doesn't go for stoking our moral indignation at the authority figures of the time as much as it understands them to be paralyzed by the constraints of a rigid set of laws, enforced by the administration that originated the misguided "War on Drugs". And never is it asking us to feel sad or sorry for the plight of its main players.
Instead, the final act achieves a kind of magnanimity through a number of gestures of human kindness that reverberate in chain reaction from one character to another. If you listen closely, you won't hear a musical score underneath these moments, a wise choice by director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., Café de Flore) who finds pure emotional resonance in simple acts of goodness. A celebrated French Canadian director, his first English-language movie is the best of what independent cinema can be. I hope his previous films now find a wider audience. "Dallas Buyers Club" is one of the very best films of the year.