Over the past few years, Matthew McConaughey has reinvented himself, going from blond rom-com lead to being an actor of critical note. With Dallas Buyers Club, he continues this refreshing trajectory, moving far beyond simple Oscar bait in the AIDS-centric biopic.
The latest from Canada’s own Jean-Marc Vallée, Dallas Buyers Club follows rodeo-riding, coke-snorting, womanizer Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), who’s introduced in the midst of a drug-fuelled threesome under the grandstands by a bullpen. It’s clear Woodroof’s life is one of careless risk. He’s somehow managed to dodge death, but when a work related electrocution lands him in the hospital, he’s diagnosed with HIV. Set during those first panic-stricken years of the AIDS outbreak, Woodroof is given 30 days to live and is ostracized by his friends as a “faggot.” Frustrated with the treatments he receives at the hospital, he discovers unapproved AIDS medication and begins selling these semi-illegal drugs with drag queen Rayon (compellingly played by Jared Leto). Though it begins as a commercial venture, Woodroof soon finds himself attached to this rapidly growing and desperate population of people searching for a cure.
While Woodroof’s evolution from a homophobic hick to an unlikely AIDS activist could have been overwrought, McConaughey avoids easy sentimentality in his performance. Instead, he captures both a hardened sense of desperation, while emitting a charming and cocky posturing that masks a fragility. Yet for everything McConaughey brings to Dallas Buyers Club, the movie does begin to wane in the final act, as the focus shifts to its secondary characters. This loss of focus detracts from Woodroof’s story and exposes the film’s biggest weakness, Jennifer Garner. Miscast as the doctor with a heart of gold, she fails to bring any depth to her character and here the film slides into the melodrama it largely managed to avoid. That said, this contrast only further highlights McConaughey’s steller performance.