DIR: Jean-Marc Vallee • WRI: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack • PRO: Robbie Brenner, Rachel Winter • DOP: Yves Belanger; ED: John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa • DES: John Paino CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn, Jennifer Garner
Someone is going to have to come up with a new word to describe Matthew McConaughey’s recent career revival soon. The word ‘renaissance’ is getting worn out. I know the English mangling description ‘McConaissance’ has been coined but that’s just a riff on the same word. If this current trajectory continues with a trip to the podium on Oscar night, a whole new lexicon may be needed.
We all knew from the get-go that McConaughey was a talent. From early peaks like the languid stoner stuck in a high school haze in Dazed & Confused and the stellar standard set in Lone Star, the native Texan exuded class and charisma. It got lost for a bit there in a blizzard of rote rom-coms but in all honesty, how bad was life really for Matty even during this critically derided period? Handsomely compensated to head up blockbusters like Sahara or snog the faces off Hollywood’s hottest leading ladies? These were the definition of first world problems.
Pinpointing the upswing in material that he has been offered or chosen is hard to trace from the outside but clearly in a run that incorporates Bernie, Killer Joe and Mud, McConaughey has thrived by reconnecting with his Southern Gothic roots. Geographically, all the recent exceptional work is steeped in the South and so it is again here. He plays a real life electrician Ron Woodruff who relied on two Texan institutions in the ‘80s for casual employment – namely the rodeo and the oil fields. A more macho creation would be hard to generate in fiction but Ron’s headlong and hedonistic approach to life hit a wall when he was diagnosed with HIV.
Reeling from shock, Ron’s gamut of initial emotions from denial to anger is played out with searing intensity and indignation. The film bravely depicts Ron as loaded down with his own prejudices and doesn’t flinch away from how narrow minded his world view was before and even after the diagnosis. In seeking out treatment, Ron is forced to consort with people he would never normally encounter. Personified here by Jared Leto’s sensitive transsexual Raylon.
With pithy finesse, the film evokes the climate of fear and ignorance swirling around AIDS in the late ‘80s. Ron is swiftly and brutally ostracised by his former friends and work colleagues. Ron doesn’t have time to dwell on the social exclusion because he’s in a race to prolong his life or procure any sort of decent treatment. With alacrity born of desperation, Ron educates himself about HIV and AIDS as he quickly absorbs enough knowledge to hold his own in any debate with officious medical professionals. When Ron’s research unearths the possibility that the favoured drug being peddled by big pharmaceutical companies for his treatment may not be the best option, he endeavours to find other options for himself. And others.
In the bleakest situation, Ron’s inquisitive and entrepreneurial nature rises to the fore and can’t be constrained by law or borders. In a bid to circumvent US rules, Ron sets up a medical club where the membership fee is just to join. Access to a range of imported medicines is thereafter classified as free. Under heavy scrutiny from the police and FDA, Ron’s operation has a limited time window but in most cases, so do Ron’s clients. The central thesis of the film pointedly reflects on a society that restricts terminal patients’ options at the very moment when all approaches and treatments should be considered.
From a distance I was sceptical of McConaughey’s Oscar credentials. Was the Academy’s fondness for radical physical transformation merely turning the award into a kind of weight-loss Olympics? However, in a film that lingers in the memory, it’s not his skeletal frame you remember most but the fire in his eyes during his tempestuous bursts of humour or temper. Equally, the gradual thawing of his homophobia seems organic and unrushed. The film’s decision to present a complex character who eschews easy sympathy in favour of a rounded and often contradictory humanity is where the real triumph lies.
The lingering sadness surrounding the film is it took so long for Ron’s story to be told. This film was decades in the making. The combination of tackling AIDS while daring to aim justified criticism at big pharmaceutical companys meant the film was a hot potato that was about as ‘unsexy’ as it gets for studios and potential funders. The wait, however regrettable, has been worthwhile.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Dallas Buyers Club is released on 7th February 2014