During my days in acting school and the many theater classes that followed, my classmates and I moaned about the lack of great roles in movies. Like many whiny, Stanislavski-fueled Brando-wannabees, we’d say, “They don’t make movies like Midnight Cowboy anymore,” “Why can’t every movie be as good as Heat?” and/or “Will there ever be a movie as good as The Godfather again?”
I suspect the next generation of acting students, Method-taught and otherwise, will one day ask aloud, “When will there be acting on the level of Dallas Buyers Club again?” This is one of those movies with performances so vivid and emotionally affecting, it will likely inspire young people to pursue acting the way One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest made me pursue stage performance. Along with recent films like Blue Valentine, Magnolia, Black Swan and The Master, the work on display from the lead actors is of a staggeringly high caliber.
When we first meet Ron Woodruff, he’s at the rodeo, barely hiding behind the bleachers, having sex with two women. The camera cuts back and forth between the wild snorting of a wild bull in the arena and Woodruff’s testosterone-driven excess. We immediately make the connection between the man and the wild animal on display, noting there may be little difference between the two.
As played by Matthew McConaughey, Woodruff’s skeletal appearance might be the first thing you notice, as McConaughey’s famously healthy frame now resembles a scarecrow. More than the shock of seeing his external look, McConaughey captures the wily, spitfire demeanor of an angry, carefree cowboy. Woodruff appears to have nothing to lose, as his gambling debts and sexual acrobatics swirl into an endless cycle. Until Woodruff discovers that he’s HIV-positive.
Taking place in 1986, right before AIDS went beyond its reputation as a “gay cancer,” we see the ultra-masculine, passionately homophobic Woodruff horrified to be diagnosed with a disease he associates with homosexuals. Worse still, once Woodruff investigates his options, he finds little in the way of medication and his doctors tell him he has a month to live. But instead of giving into his self-destructive ways, Woodruff focuses his fury on finding AIDS medication, first for himself, then for others like him.
It’s been 20 years since the release of Philadelphia, the breakthrough Hollywood film with Tom Hanks as a gay lawyer diagnosed with AIDS. I still love that film, but the benefit of making a movie about the disease decades later provides not only a greater, less naive understanding of the symptoms but allowing a post-modern, dark sense of humor to creep in. My plot description may sound maudlin but Dallas Buyers Club is as frequently hilarious as it is emotionally stirring. While it manages to be surprisingly funny, it also never gives into sappy sentimentality.
Here’s a tough but accessible, prickly but crowd pleasing character study of a wild animal who is too stubborn and strong willed to die with delicate dignity. McConaughey never sugar coats Woodruff and neither does the film, which is passionately told and always entertaining.
Jared Leto’s stunning turn as Woodruff’s unlikely pal, the transgendered Rayon, is another miracle. There really hasn’t been a performance like Leto’s since Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game. But Leto’s performance is no cabaret act. Rayon is a complex and beautiful soul, embodied by a fearless actor whose body of work continues to be dazzling in its versatility. Jennifer Garner, Dennis O’Hare, Steve Zahn and Griffin Dunne are also first rate, but it’s McConaughey and Leto who create the modern day equivalent of Joe Buck and Ratzo Rizzo.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s The Young Victoria was one of my favorite films of 2009. Here’s one of my favorite films of 2013.
Score: ***** (1-5 Star Scale)