The craft of acting is based on the performer’s ability to transform. An actor renounces to his own personality to inhabit the character’s skin. After watching Dallas Buyers Club (ISA: Voltage Pictures, U.S. Focus Features) , it is hard to think of any performances this year that exemplify that basic principle of the dramatic craft better than those in Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest work. Losing weight was just the beginning of the road for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. The physical fragility both their bodies exude allows them to fully become their broken characters from the inside out.
McConaughey plays real life hustler turned savior, Ron Woodroof, a Texan electrician that carries himself with overconfident machismo. He is fond of liquor, drugs and the company of women and fancies himself an undefeatable tough guy until he falls ill for no apparent reason. But once at the hospital the tests results are brutal. Diagnosed with HIV, he is given no more than 30 days to live, a prognosis that doesn’t sit well with the rebellious cowboy. This is 1985, and under the assumption that only homosexuals contracted the virus, all of his friends outcast him leaving him to die alone. However, he is not ready to die, and although unable to partake in the clinical trials for the promising drug AZT, he acquires it illegally. Still, the benefits are minimal and his health continues to deteriorate, so in an effort to prologue his existence and with nothing to lose, Ron decides to grab life by the horns. The perennial anti-hero embarks on a trip to Mexico to bring antiviral medication unapproved by the FDA in the U.S.
Along the way he befriends transsexual HIV-patient Rayon (Jared Leto), a charismatic character who will become Ron’s partner in crime on a mission to save their lives. Together they develop a network of clients, men and women infected with the virus and desperate to survive during a time where the disease was spreading faster than helpful medication was being released. Ron is no longer smuggling drugs only to keep himself alive, but to save, via his buyers club, the lives of those afflicted by the same evil. Openly homophobic at first, Ron experiences a profound change of heart through his friendship with Rayon. He learns to respect his condition and even defends him from his attackers. They form a bond grounded on their mutual failures and determination to not only survive, but to live.
Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Mr. Nobody), who in recent years has been mostly known for being the lead singer of the rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars, is completely unrecognizable as the drug-addicted yet charming Rayon. Cheeky and inappropriate his character steals every scene. His characterization is not only successful because of the noticeable extreme weight loss, but because he loses himself and embraces every trait of the character. His mannerisms, his gentle but sassy voice, and all other subtle nuances create a man in search of artificial femininity who really just wants to be loved. No other supporting role this year can match the devotion Mr. Leto puts into creating this character, one can only hope his work is remunerated with the respective accolades.
Working from a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack based on Ron Woodroof’s amazing life, which came to an end in 1992, Vallée tactfully avoided
clichéd sentimentalism. Confident in McConaughey’s lead performance and the power of the characters, he lets the film tell the story with affecting
vulnerability but never pushing for unnecessary emotion. McConaughey plays a man who despite his atrocious circumstances can still laugh at the world
around him. He fights a system with the knowledge that everyday he lives is a small miracle, and thanks to that he has the upper hand. His physician Dr.
Eve Saks, played on point by Jennifer Garner, is at once perplexed by his crooked ways and full of
admiration for his labor of love.
Say what you will about a man who breaks the law, a man who tricks the system in a priest outfit, and that even aware of his scrawny figure dares to ride a bull, but one has to give it to him for looking at himself and others in his situation not like lost causes victims of their own sins, but as flawed people who deserve, at the very least the chance to live one more day. Dallas Buyers Club is simultaneously a showcase of masterful acting, and a lesson in humanity.