February 20, 2014

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB The Latest Milestone In The Golden Age Of McConaughey

"I prefer to die with my boots on."
All right, all right, all right.

I am thoroughly enjoying the second coming of Matthew McConaughey.  I'll always love his Wooderson from Dazed And Confused, and his incredible death scene in Reign Of Fire is the stuff of legend.  Hell I even genuinely enjoy his version of Dirk Pitt in Sahara, despite it being a fairly dramatic departure from the character as written in Clive Cussler's collection of novels.  I'm a fan of the guy, but even I must admit that McConaughey's career has been all over the map.  He tried to chase Nicolas Cage down the rabbit hole of dumb action movies, but to no avail.  He appeared in some real prestige pictures like A Time To Kill and Amistad, but audiences didn't really want to take him that seriously.  So, in a fit of massive over-correction, the guy spent the better part of a decade lost in the wilderness of sub-par romantic comedies.  That was hard to watch.  For a minute there, it seemed like it was time to write off McConaughey for good.

And then a remarkable thing happened.  He stopped trying to conform to Hollywood's expectations and decided to embrace his own peculiar personality.  It started with Surfer, Dude and The Lincoln Lawyer then continued with strong supporting roles in weirder low budget films like Bernie and Killer Joe.  2012 saw McConaughey come back in a big way with Mud and Magic Mike, and by then it was clear that he had essentially turned into the skid and emerged as the guy we all knew he could be after all these years.  He's responsible for probably the second best 10 minute sequence of Wolf Of Wall Street,* he's currently killing it on HBO's True Detective and next year he's going into space for Chris Nolan in Interstellar.  Talk about a hot streak.

When McConaughey got the Golden Globe for his performance as AIDS patient Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club, I wasn't really all that surprised even though it's a crowded category and I hadn't seen the movie yet.  The Hollywood Foreign press is usually a little off-kilter and I figured that he had done some solid work and was essentially being rewarded for pulling his career out of the gutter.  But then a few weeks later he also won the SAG award and suddenly became not just a serious contender but the outright front runner for an Oscar.  I remained a tad skeptical, only because there are just so many strong male performances this year, to the point that a lot of my favorite ones (Joaquin Phoenix, Oscar Isaac, Michael B. Jordan, Tom Hanks) didn't even get nominated.  Could McConaughey really go toe-to-toe with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Leonardo DiCaprio giving arguably the best performances of their careers?

Yup.

It would be easy to undervalue his performance because of the jarring visual of his gaunt figure.  Whenever an actor goes through a profound physical transformation, whether it be biological or with the use of heavy prosthesis, there's a tendency to write it off as an attention-seeking gimmick.  "Oh, Charlize Theron made herself look really ugly for this role.  How impressive."  Whether such sentiments are spoken in sarcasm or in earnest, they often hijack the conversation and become the only thing you remember about a movie.  (Honestly, what can you tell me about The Machinist other than the fact that you could count Christian Bale's individual ribs?)  But don't let that happen here.  In fact, I'll assert that the most remarkable transformation that McConaughey undergoes in Dallas Buyers is not a physical one, but an emotional one.

Ron Woodruff is a fascinating and complex character.  He starts off as a hard-partying, homophobic, womanizing degenerate and eventually morphs into a successful entrepenuer and champion of the gay community as he single-handedly takes on the FDA and challenges the medical establishment in their attitude towards AIDS patients.  There's no big, emotional moment of revelation in which Woodruff realizes the folly of his ways and vows to turn his life around and become a more tolerant person.  Instead it's a gradual shift built upon necessity; Woodruff is diagnosed with HIV told he has a mere 30 days to live, but he's determined to prove the doctors wrong and outlive his diagnosis by any means necessary.  He scams treatment out of an experimental drug trial and when the medication proves more harmful than helpful, he heads down to Mexico and discovers a host of treatment options being completely overlooked in the U.S.  Woodruff then sets up shop in Dallas, importing the unapproved-but-not-illegal medications across the border and distributing them to the members of his "buyers club," essentially an end-run around the law to help provide treatment to similarly afflicted patients without being arrested as a drug dealer.

This all took place in the late 80's and early 90's (the film's opening scene features a newspaper that mentions Rock Hudson dying in a French hospital) which means that while I was alive for this era, I remember very little of it.  Like many of my peers, the first memory I have of hearing about HIV or AIDS was when Magic Johnson announced his own diagnosis, which my mother says occurred the day after I served as a ball boy during a Celtics-Lakers game.  By the time I had any appreciation for the disease, it was largely considered, while not curable, at least treatable.  Something you could live with.  But in 1985 when Woodruff was first hospitalized, it was essentially a death sentence surrounded by a cloud of ignorance and misinformation.  There's a documentary on the subject called How To Survive A Plague that I've heard is extremely powerful.  I wish I'd gotten the chance to watch it before my year was up.  The story of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. is a fascinating one, and one with which I wish I was more familiar.  The fact that Woodruff had to go to court and fight for his right to take non-toxic protein supplements because the FDA was essentially in bed with pharmaceutical companies...I wouldn't call it shocking by today's standards, but that only makes it feel all the more relevant in the age of Big Pharma.

Woodruff not only had to immerse himself in stacks of medical research that was likely way over his head, but he was also thrust into the heart of the gay community, the demographic hit hardest by the disease at that time.  He bonds with another patient named Rayon, beautifully portrayed by a similarly emaciated Jared Leto, and the two of them become not only business partners but also the closest of friends.  It's essentially a shining example of trench warfare - when you're thrown into the shit together, you learn to get over your own prejudices and eventually realize that for all our differences, we're all just people.  The disease doesn't care who you're fucking.

Whether he wins the Oscar or not, (and I think he just might) Dallas Buyers Club absolutely belongs in the pantheon of great McConaughey performances.  It's a must see for anyone who considers themselves a fan of his slow Texas drawl and laconic charm.  If you think that's all there is to the man, Dallas Buyers will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is so much more.  McConaughey is back and better than ever.

And if you're wondering whatever happened to Wooderson, I give you this:


You're welcome.



*The first being the super-lude freakout, obviously.

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Title: Dallas Buyers Club
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O'Hare, Michael O'Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: DVD