It doesn’t take long to establish the challenge of Matthew McConaughey’s performance in “Dallas Buyers Club,” both for him and viewers implicitly asked to accept it. The emaciated actor, playing a straight man who just learned he has AIDS, glares at his doctor and fires back that there’s no way he’s got “that Rock-cock-sucking-Hudson bullshit.” McConaughey, who shed nearly a quarter of his body weight for the role, makes clear the artificial nature of his screen presence from the outset, then spends most of the movie strengthening its credibility. To its credit, “Dallas Buyers Club” provides McConaughey with sufficient room to gradually make this challenging persona more palatable, but like the character’s battle to survive, it’s no easy proposition.
Based on the true life story of Ron Woodruff, a Texan electrician diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, “Dallas Buyers Club” covers the immediate aftermath of Woodruff’s diagnosis, which initially arrived with the expectation that he would be dead within a month — even though he lived another seven years. Facing impossible odds for the time, Woodruff fought to get his hands on unapproved experimental medications and eventually got in the business of selling it to other ailing locals.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s script, the movie emphasizes Woodruff’s transition from spiteful trailer trash cliché to medical activist a little too bluntly, though Vallée largely counteracts that issue with a noticeably restrained tone that foregrounds McConaughey’s increasingly believable embodiment of the character. Vallée, whose last credit was the ambitious French language time-hopping drama “Café de Flore,” directs this scenario with a straightforward approach that may not realize the full dramatic weight of the situation, but capably allows the vibrant protagonist to carry each scene he’s in.
Rather than engaging with the greater issues of the AIDS epidemic plaguing the country at the same time that Woodruff faces his predicament, “Dallas Buyers Club” merely hints at the bigger picture, sticking for the most part to Woodruff’s transition: Starting out as a mean-spirited philanderer, he gradually softens up under dire circumstances. The chief emotional pull comes from the way he initially rejects others’ help and eventually decides to join their cause.
Perhaps even more than the film’s director, McConaughey turns Woodruff’s commitment into the central engine of the drama. Initially seen as a hustler who wastes his days ripping people off at rodeos and screwing every woman in his orbit, he funnels that same energy into his fight, even though he’s a newbie to its cause. “Screw the FBA,” he says, flubbing the acronym FDA when told that the medicine he wants hasn’t been approved. “I’ve got a DOA.”
Woodruff’s rising business prospects provide sufficient material for an increasingly involving drama, as his dealings find him not only seeding the needs of the Dallas AIDS community but also traveling around the world in search of more unlicensed drugs. Unfortunately, most of the other personalities surrounding the scheme lack the same sharp definition. As the tender-hearted doctor initially divided over his cause before taking a radical stance of her own, Jennifer Garner delivers a basic, unadventurous performance that suffers from being in the shadow of McConaughey’s decidedly complex achievement. Jared Leto technically faces an even more daunting undertaking with his portrayal of Rayon, the angst-riddled transsexual driven to become Woodruff’s business partner. But while Rayon is a believably irritable outcast, he’s given only a handful of scenes to broaden the plot’s focus. For better or worse, “Dallas Buyers Club” foregrounds Woodruff’s struggles above all else — including the much heavier plight of the gay community surrounding him.
But if you’re willing to accept that he’s the only true star, the movie eloquently tracks a compelling juxtaposition: Woodruff’s wild-eyed early days, when he smuggles the ineffectual drug AZT out of the hospital and chases it down with beer and coke, are pitted against images of the considerably more empathetic man seen in the final act. After meeting an underground doctor south of the border (a wry Griffin Dunne), Woodruff finds the ideal partner in crime to enable his scheme. It’s easy to get swept up their cause, even as it has grim undertones relegated to a minor role.
Shot with a gritty naturalism that draws out the Western dimensions of the setting, “Dallas Buyers Club” matches Woodruff’s tough situation with an equally dour atmosphere. The narrative only really stumbles because its tone never manages to convince on the level of McConaughey’s performance. With its subdued approach, “Dallas Buyers Club” stops just short of a true emotional payoff.
But that’s a relatively innocuous problem considering that it manages to navigate the possibility of a far more troubling issue — marginalizing its gay characters, “Dallas Buyers Club” finds them rescued by a messianic straight man. The sole moment Vallée overplays this possibility in gratuitous fashion, he shows Woodruff discovering a roomful of moths and allows them to cover his body as if they were millions of souls rescued by his efforts. It’s the single occasion where “Dallas Buyers Club” jumps the shark; for the majority of the time, it wrestles with the heavy material like the cowboys and cattle at the rodeo that frames its events, and McConaughey proves himself a proficient rider.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Focus Features plans to release “Dallas Buyers Club” this Friday, kicking off an awards campaign for centered on McConaughey’s performance. The actor is bound to remain in play for his physically demanding turn while decent word of mouth should sustain the film through its opening weekend.