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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club (Limited Release Date: 11-1-2013)

        I'm convinced that Matthew McConaughey had a brain transplant somewhere around the summer of 2009, and it's simply taken us this long to notice. Up through that point, the romantic comedy veteran's name was almost synonymous with Hollywood smut, embodied by such eye-rolling classics as Failure to Launch and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. The last few years, however, have seen the thespian turn his career around in one of the most stark and improbable 180's in recent memory. The last two years alone have already seen McConaughey shine in no fewer than five movies (Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, The Paperboy, and Mud), with buzzy upcoming collaborations with Martin Scorsese (The Wolf on Wallstreet) and Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) next on the docket. But even with all his solid work of late, there was still nothing that could have convinced me that the star of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days was capable of the spellbinding performance at the center of Dallas Buyers Club.

        Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is a hard-partying good ol' boy, an electrician who moonlights as a rodeo bull rider in 1985 Dallas. His endless cycle of drugs, sex, and other forms of debauchery is thrown for quite a loop when, upon a visit to the hospital for a work-related injury, Woodroof learns that he has HIV, and only about a month to live. Very much a mystery disease at the time, Ron is immediately shunned by his homophobic friends (see: everyone he knows) who cannot conceive of another way to pass the sickness. After toiling through an American health system still working out the kinks of the situation, Woodroof looks across boarders and over ponds to attain the medicine he needs, eventually setting up the make-shift dispensary from which the film receives its name.

        For screenwriter Craig Borten, Dallas Buyers Club represents 20 years of commitment and perseverance. Having driven down to the lone star state to meet his film's subject more than two decades ago, Borten had to sweat through potential directors (Marc Forster, Craig Gillespie) and stars (Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Gael García Bernal) before McConaughey and Helmer Jean-Marc Vallée finally committed to the picture. Budget limitations then restricted the film to a 25-day shoot in which no artificial lighting was used; to say that DBC is a labor of love would be an understatement, and the desire to do right by both the history and the material at hand is evident in every handsome frame.

        The most obvious praise goes to the actors, McConaughey and Jared Leto each likely headed for Oscar nominations come the beginning of next month. Leto, who plays Rayon, a drag queen who becomes Woodroof's unlikely business partner, avoids easy caricature and stereotypical bigness for a performance at once subtle and scene-stealing. The grace that he carries with him is palpable, his every movement exacting and specific. Body mechanics are actually right at the heart of the film's pair of towering turns, each actor having lost north of 30 pounds to make their diseases believable. We've never seen McConaughey anywhere near this vulnerable, his character's anxieties and animalistic drive to live just as prominent as his bones and veins. His journey from quick-witted bigot to Robin Hood-like con-man is a marvel to watch, gradual and messy enough to believe, powerful and emotional enough to get swept up in. I've still got a few left to see, but from where I sit now, it's the single most impressive performance of 2013.

        A common argument against Dallas Buyers Club labels the film as yet another movie about a minority group told from a majority stand point. An epidemic most often witnessed in racially-themed pictures like The Blind Side or The Help, filmmakers too often employ a straight, white protagonist as an avatar for the audience, making the tale at hand more relatable. While this is often a near-necessary observation, I can't help but find the argument futile in the case of Dallas Buyers Club, a film that outs itself as notably heterosexual with its carnal opening images, and never veers off course. DBC isn't concerned with providing any sort of definitive chronicle of the early AIDS crisis; the picture is a deep, penetrating character study of a resourceful huckster who unwittingly found himself right in the middle of an epidemic, and had to scratch and claw for his right to survive. Those disappointed that the film doesn't bare a larger cultural weight on its shoulders miss the point altogether. Dallas Buyers Club is a portrait of a unique man living in an under-discussed time and era, one with ample intrigue and emotional heft, and an absolute pulverization of everything you thought you knew about Matthew McConaughey. It also happens to be one of the best films of the year.

Grade: A-

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