Matthew McConaughey continues his streak of strong, interesting roles in compelling independent dramas. This time around, he plays real-life 1980s cowboy and AIDS activist Ron Woodroof in a docudrama directed by Quebec filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.). Dallas Buyers Club is about one fiercely dramatic performance wrapped around a fairly conventional narrative of uncovering and facing injustice (think Erin Brokovich or Philadelphia).
Despite being highly dramatized and partially fictionalized, the film does an admirable job fashioning together Woodroof's wild and rough behaviour leading to his transformation from bigot to entrepreneur. McConaughey's Woodroof starts the film as a true to life cowboy with his homophobia and simple Texas ideals. We're shown his wildly irresponsible and destructive lifestyle full of unprotected sex and casual drug use. However, this changes gradually due to Woodroof's one overwhelming and powering character trait, his desire to live and fight, rising to the top as he battles the FDA and those standing in his way.
At the start, Woodroof is only given thirty days to live and the film is constructed around every subsequent day of survival after receiving such a death sentence. It's a very compelling story, scripted by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, of struggle and acceptance in the face of public paranoia and bigotry. Vallée shows how easily we've forgotten about the stigma and misinformation around those living with HIV/AIDS dealt with. While Dallas Buyers Club is primarily a "hero's journey" of the typical dynamic protagonist (played here by a white homosexual man), the film never discounts the plight of those who weren't so lucky as it focuses on Woodroof's singular story of survival and redemption.
McConaughey is nicely supported by more than a few characters, most of whom are composites of real-life people, around him. Jared Leto's portrayal of Rayon, a transsexual HIV positive drug user, is quite touching and revelatory. Their relationship goes through an interesting evolution as Ron begins to sympathize with Rayon's alternative lifestyle and the primarily gay support community affected by AIDS. Jennifer Garner (McConaughey's co-star from Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) is effectively understated as a physician struggling with how to treat her patients as she rustles with her own humanity.
Vallée has crafted a very effective and compelling drama around the incredible story of Woodroof's survival. However, it's really McConaughey's insanely transformative portrayal that raises the film to a higher standard. Dallas Buyers Club is clearly a film built around its strong performances from McConaughey, Leto, Garner, and a well-rounded, superb supporting cast of misfits. It truly suceeds as a character story about living with disease and facing your own prejudices.
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