So when did Matthew McConaughey become an actor?
I don’t mean that in a rude way — well, not in that rude of a way — but I can recall a time when he was the rom-com man. I watched many a trailer for many a cookie-cutter feel-good flick staring him, back in the day.
And yet now he’s thumping his chest in The Wolf of Wall Street (incidentally, if you have some time to kill then there are few weirder ways to do it than by watching this hypnotically odd loop of video) and staring in biopics around the eighties AIDS crisis.
Dallas Buyers Club (I feel certain there should be an apostrophe in there somewhere; it bothers me like the AWOL colon in Star Trek Into Darkness) centres around Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a Texas rodeo man and electrician, who is diagnosed with AIDS. Finding the drugs to keep him alive firstly unavailable to him, and secondly toxic when he actually does get hold of them, he starts a cat and mouse game with the FDA to get better but unlicensed drugs from Mexico for himself and his fellow sufferers — if not without making a little money on the way.
AIDS is an odd subject for a film. Not that films about it shouldn’t be made, simply that it occupies a hinterland in cultural memory whereby it is still within touching distance, but medical treatment has advanced at such a staggering rate that rampant AIDS itself feels like a hallmark of a lost time.
But the film is excellently portrayed. Though I can’t speculate how close it is to Ron Woodroof’s actual life (I’ll let Wikipedia do that for me), the story is profound and moving. It is a character-based and -driven film in so far as it isn’t so much about the events in Ron’s life, but the character developments which drive them.
Nowhere is this clearer than Jared Leto’s portrayal of Rayon (a composite character, if the great and powerful Wiki is to be believed). Ron’s diminishing homophobia centres around Rayon, softening firstly in pursuit of money, and then into something more compassionate and principled with Rayon as a brutally emotional flashpoint. This is the first performance by Leto which (I think…) I’ve seen since Fight Club, and it was every bit as magnificent as McConaughey’s.
Though, yes, McConaughey does steal the show. Not content, apparently, with simply being an excellent and rehabilitated actor, he seems to have moonlighted at the Christian Bale school of insane method acting. He has pushed his body and his performance to the limit for Dallas Buyers Club, and as a result Ron looks skeletal, halfway to dead already, with an odd charm which draws out those desperate sufferers to him.
What about the message, though? Really, if there is anyone any more who doubts the unrelenting horror of HIV and AIDS, they are kindly invited to leave this blog. The film is horrible, and unflinching, and draws its power from intensely likeable characters and believable villains. Did the FDA and pharma companies really put so much effort into suppressing drugs which helped terminally ill people? I don’t know, but it fits the type, doesn’t it?
There were a few scenes which moved me to tears. The first was in the supermarket, where in his aggressive and brazen way Ron stands up for Rayon, forcing a bigoted former friend of his to take Rayon’s proffered handshake. The second was a simple moment, when Ron is looking for a new business premises for the club, and a pair of patients who he helped earlier in the film cut him off mid-negotiation, as they “just want to help”.
The image of an outcast, underdog community is a powerful one, in cinema and reality. And Dallas Buyers Club reflects both. The story is cinematic, the characters filling the screen, but always, always in the back of the audience’s mind is that this story is real, the people are real, many times over.
I’m giving up making Oscar picks. We seem to be in the midst of a film boom, the crest of which Dallas Buyers Club is confidently riding. An emotional triumph of a film. Perhaps having friends who are today living with the horror of HIV colours my perspective, but to me it was one of those films which is every bit as important as 12 Years a Slave, melding the personal with the principle.