DALLAS BUYERS CLUB review by Mark Walters – Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career… again

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB review by Mark Walters – Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career… again


It seems like the phrase “Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career” has been used a lot lately, as his films of the last three years like THE LINCOLN LAWYER, BERNIE, KILLER JOE, MUD and even MAGIC MIKE could justifiably all earn that sentiment. Definitely safe to say his acting choices have been smart and impressive as of late. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB may not be a title a lot of moviegoers are familiar with just yet, though they’ve undoubtedly heard about or at least seen photos of McConaughey’s dramatic weight loss for the project.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (THE YOUNG VICTORIA), the movie follows Ron Woodruff (McConaughey), a mid-1980s Dallas-based country boy who loves the ladies and his freewheelin’ lifestyle. One day after an unexpected trip to the hospital, Ron is informed by Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) that he’s contracted HIV. At the time it was assumed that only gay men could get HIV or AIDS, so Woodruff is immediately offended by this remark, reacting in a way that allows the audience to see his bigotry against homosexuals. After being told he has a month to live, Ron gets serious about the virus and starts studying up on alternative treatments. He discovers there are medications in other countries that appear to help, but thanks to the Food and Drug Administration these treatments are unavailable in the USA, so Woodruff takes a trip to Mexico to stock up. While there he finds the drugs he needs, observes their treatment first hand, and learns that the USA-prescribed medication of AZT is actually more harmful than helpful. After a bold yet successful attempt to bring back large supplies of the alternative medicines, Ron soon begins to sell them to those in need. He also finds that business is strongest in the gay community, and reluctantly implements the help of a transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto, also dramatically thin here) to get the word out. Soon this little side business becomes the “Dallas Buyers Club”, using a membership fee program to circumvent the FDA and avoid breaking any actual laws. While business booms through the years, Ron befriends Dr. Saks, warms up to Rayon, and begins to change his once careless ways… all while surviving much longer than the doctors ever told him he would.

It’s easy to make a statement about an actor losing a shocking amount of weight being a stunt, or just a play at Oscar attention, but there are times when it not only fits the character but helps define the performance. Seeing both McConaughey and Jared Leto looking so emaciated, to me, really sold the idea of these guys dealing with HIV and (in Leto’s case) being a junkie. But while there are a few scenes showing the skin and bones of these boys, I never found it horribly distracting or annoying, instead it helped them transform into people I didn’t recognize and could lose myself in while following their respective tales. I’m sure we’ve all at some point thought of the horrors that come with contracting the AIDS virus, and how it would drastically alter your life. Almost every facet is dealt with here, from the deteriorating health and physical side effects, to how one’s friends can turn on them or just abandon them completely. None of it feels forced or overplayed, although it’s safe to say there’s a lot of dramatic license taken with the story. I actually spoke to a nurse who deals with HIV patients at the screening, and while she did note there was a lot of inaccuracies in the facts presented here, she also seemed to think the film itself was done well and those liberties were understandable. The screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack moves at a brisk pace and keeps things engaging from start to finish. Even in the slowest moments of the story I never felt bored, and Jean-Marc Vallée’s directing does a nice job of framing these characters and telling a period piece that is still quite relatable even today.

Matthew McConaughey was an inspired choice for the role, which apparently was also considered by both Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling. Seeing McConaughey’s take on Ron Woodruff, I imagine I’d have a hard time seeing anyone else in the part now. He still has that classic country boy charm, which despite his appearance remains realistic in the moments where it helps him win someone over in the story. But there’s a power and emotion here we don’t often see from the man, and a few moments where he really lets his guard down and shows vulnerability. It’s a difficult role to be certain, and not just from a physical aspect. On one hand, Woodruff’s actions were borderline criminal, and he most certainly used shady means to get the job done… yet we can’t help but love him and identify with his plight, celebrate his wins, and feel bad when things don’t go well. There’s a subtlety in the performance that makes it work, and McConaughey is in top form here no matter how you slice it. Jared Leto, making his return to acting after a four year absence, is also exceptional as Rayon. He captures all the qualities of a confident transvestite, walking and talking proud, and likable even when doing all the wrong things. There’s also a dark and sad side to the role that shows up late in the film, and proves once again that Leto is a secret acting weapon in stories like these. Perhaps the only performance that gets a little lost is that of Jennifer Garner, who isn’t necessarily bad, but held up against the two leads and their heavyweight deliveries just seems to pale in comparison. Garner’s role is meant to be downplayed anyway, as she’s there more as the voice of reason, or to react to the events unfolding rather than change them. You’ll also see familiar faces like Steve Zahn and Dallas Roberts as friends or co-workers of Woodruff, though sadly those roles are fairly underwritten in the piece, which is truly a showcase for McConaughey and Leto. Griffin Dunne is a welcome addition as the doctor Ron meets in Mexico, even if many may not recognize him with his long gray hair and full beard.

It’s safe to say this is an “adult” story and a movie meant for adult sensibilities. Whenever these subjects are tackled in films, it’s always a little tricky to make it work and have it be entertaining, but somehow DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is just that on every level. You may feel like you’re watching a classic 1980s film in some parts, but one that held up really well through the years. I never thought I’d use words like “charming” and “fun” for a film like this, but in all honesty it is a rather charming and fun experience, with some heavy drama mixed in. I’d be shocked if either McConaughey or Leto (or both) didn’t at least get an Academy Award nomination out of the deal, but stranger things have happened. Just make sure you don’t miss this one, as from what I can tell it’s in pretty limited release right now, and easily one of the better films of the year.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is now playing at Angelika Dallas

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.