Matthew McConaughey has already given one great performance this year in Mud. He tops himself with this portrayal of a homophobic Texas good ol’ boy who is diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985 and becomes an unlikely champion for others who are fighting for their lives, just like him. The story is more layered and complex than that, but that summary gives you an indication of the inherent drama in this material, fashioned as a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.
Hollywood, and the media, love to focus on actors who undergo physical transformations, so much has been written about McConaughey’s extreme weight loss and costar Jared Leto’s appearance as a transsexual. What matters more is the persuasiveness of their performances. McConaughey thoroughly inhabits his contradictory character, a crude redneck who’s smart enough to go to the library and read up about AIDS once he’s diagnosed with the dread disease. Leto is equally convincing as a patient at the local Dallas hospital who becomes McConaughey’s trusted ally as he builds an underground business selling drugs and vitamins smuggled into the country. Other key roles are well played by Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare, Dallas Roberts, Michael O’Neill, Steve Zahn, and Griffin Dunne.
Dallas Buyers Club is vivid and immediate, a compelling movie as opposed to a well-meaning docudrama. There is no hint of sanctimoniousness or self-seriousness. It’s a story of outcasts, outlaws, and a years-long battle with government bureaucracy and medical red tape. It also reminds us of a terrible period in recent history when an epidemic swept through our society.
If the director’s name is unfamiliar, that’s because we in the U.S. don’t get to see enough French-language films from Quebec. Vallée earned so much (well-deserved) attention for his 2005 film C.R.A.Z.Y. that he got a job helming a mainstream English-language picture, The Young Victoria. He’s a major talent, and if you haven’t seen C.R.A.Z.Y. I recommend that you seek it out.