(Photo : Focus Features)
Over the last few years Matthew McConaughey has resurrected his acting career with strong turns in "Magic Mike," "The Lincoln Lawyer," "Bernie," "Killer Joe," and "Mud." There is a ton of anticipation over his turn in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," but his best performance of the year is arguably in "Dallas Buyers Club." The film has already made a ton of headlines after pictures of McConaughey's weight loss were posted over the Internet. The act of losing so much weight is only one example of how committed McConaughey's performance in the film is as he delivers one of the finest turns of th year.
Based on a true story, the film tells the story of Ron Woodroof, a man who finds out he has AIDS and seeks out different medical solutions to extend his life. Along the way, he sets up a business in which he deals alternative medicine and finds himself in a fight with the FDA.
The film works on a number of different levels. On a universal level, the film showcases the battle of the little man against corporate America, which is portrayed by the FDA. The film presents an ample critique on bureaucracy and its ethical crimes in search of money and in many ways the film's questioning of the current healthcare market is timely in light of the ongoing politics in Washington. One of the more memorable scenes in the film that feature this small guy vs. large corporation showdown takes place late in the film when Woodroof intrudes on a meeting for AIDS patients in which the FDA is presenting its latest drug. Woodroof steals the spotlight and fires back at the executives as he is forced out of the room. Director Jean-Marc Vallee and cinematographer Yves Belanger do a terrific job of framing the scene. The camera stays close to Woodroof initially while keeping the FDA officials at a distance. However, as the scene draws to an end and Woodroof is shown the door, he looks smaller and smaller in the frame, his insignificance in this particular context emphasized.
While the political and ethical context is certainly riveting on its own, Vallee also presents the film as an intimate drama about coming to terms with death. While Woodroof fights death through his constant search for hope-giving medications, his associate Rayon (Jared Leto) deals with his AIDS by self-destruction. In one particular montage, Vallee showcases Woodroof engaged in his "drug dealing." Throughout the sequence he continually returns to Leto's character and showcases him in tight close-up that reveals a pensive, distraught look in his eyes. All the while, Rayon smokes and drinks. This sequence serves as a perfect juxtaposition of the two characters' behaviors. One fights death, the other has a more passive approach and even accelerates it. Despite the comparison, there are times when the viewer feels that the tension between the life-seeker and destroyer is not emphasized enough. Woodroof bullies Rayon a few times, but that tension never truly escalates between the two characters. They become great friends, but the drama of Woodroof trying to help Rayon save himself ultimately feels a bit unfinished in the grand scheme of things. Woodroof's reaction to his friend's eventual fate lacks the gravitas one would expect from such a close bond.
The film also follows the story of Dr. Eve Saks who slowly questions the morality of her actions in treating AIDS patients. The story is the least interesting of all, but Vallee's ability to develop it seamlessly without distracting from the other two storylines is a marvelous feat nonetheless.
As aforementioned, McConaughey is at his most riveting in this film. He is a wreckless and aloof man in the early stages of the film, almost a man-child if you will. However, the transformation into a mature man in complete control of his destiny is extremely powerful. He is a fearless character from the start, but even his more violent moments later in the film are colored with vulnerability and weakness. Take the aforementioned confrontation with the FDA as an example. He shouts and yells, but almost seems ready to burst into tears at his own helplessness. In one scene early in the film, McConaughey bawls with raw intensity that will unsettle anyone watching. The actor does manage to bring his trademark charm to the role and is particularly tender in a dinner scene with Eve Saks.
Leto is unrecognizable as the cross-dressing Rayon and he moves along a similar character trajectory as McConaughey. He is bubbly in his first scene and even flirts with McConaughey. However, his deterioration is not only a physical one, but an emotional one. His final scene is heart-breaking and brutal in its portrayal and really highlights the difficulty of living without any hope.
Garner is solid as Saks and delivers a memorable response to McConaughey's rude language early on.
Ultimately, "Dallas Buyers Club" is McConaughey's film and he proves to any lingering doubters that he is a top-flight actor that is only starting to showcase his potential. His multi-faceted performance here only creates greater anticipation for what may come next.