Who would have thought Matthew McConaughey could be so good?
It's almost impossible to reconcile the lead actor in Dallas Buyers Club with the one who appeared in all those awful romantic comedies.For the record it's not that we have anything against Matthew McConaughey, with his good looks and easy Texan charm, what's not to like? His public persona is one of a decent down to earth guy, who's occasionally up for a bit of naked bongo playing. It's just that for too long he coasted along in mediocre movies which often included a theatrical poster where McConaughey was leaning against something. You couldn't shake the impression that McConaughey was just playing himself, having a laugh, picking up the pay cheques and really not taking this acting lark very seriously. There was the odd decent performance but most of his back catalogue is forgettable.However over the last few years something incredible happened and suddenly Matthew McConaughey started making really interesting movies, upping his game and re-inventing himself as a serious and very good actor. In fact since 2011's Bernie, McConaughey has been getting nothing but rave reviews, with standout performances in Mud, Killer Joe, Magic Mike and The Paperboy. He even managed to eclipse Leonardo DiCaprio in his brief cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street. Now, with Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey is looking like the odds-on favourite to win the Academy Award for Best Actor at this year's Oscars. Who would have thought it?
Matthew McConaughey's performance as Ron Woodroof is nothing short of a revelation.
If Matthew McConaughey does win the Academy Award this year, one thing is for sure, he definitely deserves it. Not only is he on-screen for almost the entire film, playing a complex character who transforms from a bigoted homophobe to a campaigning activist, but his physical transformation is simply astonishing. Not since the heyday of Robert De Niro's LaMotta and Capone weight gains or, more recently, Christain Bale's vanishing acts in The Machinist and The Fighter, has an actor so completely changed his physicality. Gone are the good looks and toned abs of the McConaughey of old, replaced by the skeletal visage of a man in the grips of full-blown AIDS. So convincing is McConaughey's transformation, he apparently lost 50lbs for the role, that at times you fear for the actor's health. However, it's not just the physical aspects of the role, as impressive as they are, that get your attention but McConaughey's multi-layered performance as AIDS patient Ron Woodroof.
The character is a complex one, Woodroof isn't exactly the stuff heroes are made of, he's a hustler, a drug addict and highly promiscuous. He's openly bigoted and homophobic and initially refuses to accept that he could have caught, as he puts it, "some faggot's disease". However as the reality of his situation sinks in, he begins to do something about it. At first his actions are purely selfish but he soon starts to try and help fellow suffers, many of whom are the very homosexuals that he initially hated. MacConaughey plays Woodroof with the kind of likeable charm that he could do in his sleep but he brings so much more to the role - from rage to desperation to a sense of righteous indignation, Ron's journey is both moving and uplifting. Woodroof's battle against himself, the disease, the odds, the pharmaceutical companies and, ultimately, the government is a fascinating story made all the more remarkable because it actually happened.
Matthew McConaughey isn't the only member of the cast to give his all for the film, Jared Leto is equally as impressive as Rayon, Ron's business partner and, ultimately, best friend. Leto, in his first film in five years, also lost a considerable amount of weight, over 30lbs, to play the part of a HIV-positive transgender woman. Leto is utterly convincing in a role that required him to effectively play a woman through the entire movie. His character is both sassy and funny, so watching her decline to both drugs and ultimately AIDS is heartbreaking but it's the relationship between Rayon and Ron that gives the film it's emotional core. Ron goes from utter disgust for Rayon to a degree of understanding and eventually genuine affection for his friend, especially after all his other friends abandon him. Leto has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and like his co-star, he's the odds-on favourite to win. It will certainly be completely deserved if both men pick up Oscars for their totally committed performances in this very low budget movie.
The cast also includes Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks, who initially treats both Ron and Rayon and is both sympathetic to their plight and ultimately suspicious of the motives of both her colleagues and the big drug companies. Whilst Garner is perfectly adequate in the role, she sometimes feels a little out of her depth next to the staggering performances of McConaughey and Leto. She was a late replacement for Hilary Swank and it would have been interesting to see the two-time Oscar winner in the role instead. Steve Zahn also pops up as Ron's policeman friend who is about the only one to stand by him after his diagnosis, whilst Griffen Dunne is great as a US AIDS doctor based in Mexico.
The film was written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack and the pair do a wonderful job of remaining close to the truth whilst still creating a story that is gripping, informative, funny and sad. Obviously there are certain elements that have been changed to support the drama, both Leto and Garner's characters are composites and Woodroof himself wasn't quite as bigoted in real life as he is portrayed at the start of the film. However, the historic details relating to the use of 'buyers clubs' as a way of circumventing certain laws, the clinical trials of AZT and other HIV treatments and to the relationship between doctors, pharmaceutical companies and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) are all fascinating. Ultimately though it's Ron's journey that remains with you long after you've left the cinema - from hustler to entrepreneur to saviour, it's amazing what a man given 30 days to live can achieve.
The film was made on budget of just $5 million and shot in only 25 days, so out of necessity director Jean-Marc Vallee used minimal lighting setups with only one hand-held camera. Takes lasted up to 15 minutes but the result is a sense of rawness and immediacy that adds to the desperate plight of the protagonists. The framing within the 2.35:1 ratio that the film is shot in is always excellent and the use of diegetic music adds to the overall sense of realism. However despite its subject matter the film is never depressing and whilst it's moving at times, it's also funny and uplifting. Who would have thought a film about a hustler dying of AIDS could be this enjoyable and who would have thought that Matthew McConaughey would give one of the best performances you'll see in any film this year.
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