It is not unusual for an actor to radically change their physique to play a character. Robert De Niro did it to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Charlize Theron did it to play Aileen Wuornos in Monster and Christian Bale did it to play the lead in The Machinist. About a year ago the tabloids were full of pictures of Matthew McConaughey thin as a rail with questions about his health or suspicions of drug use. Neither was the case, McConaghey lost the weight to play the role of Ron Woodruff, an electrician from Texas who contracted AIDS in the mid-80s and went on to battle pharmaceutical companies and the medical establishment. Not always when an actor puts his health in jeopardy does it turn out well, in this case the risk was worth the reward.
Matthew McConaughey has been one of the most lusted after Hollywood actors for the length of his career. He has made many a woman’s (and probably man’s) heart flutter with his good looks and Southern drawl. With films like The Wedding Planner, How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Fool’s Gold, and Failure to Launch he has played the heartthrob. But if you were to take a closer look at his resumé you would see that more often than not he has taken roles which don’t play on his good looks. Films like Amistad, Mud, A Time to Kill, Contact, Frailty, and The Paperboy all have varying degrees of depth, but they all demonstrate an actor who is interested in acting. As he has gotten older this has become more and more true for McConaughey. Now with Dallas Buyer’s Club this performance will solidify him as an actor rather than simply another pretty face.
Texan Ron Woodruff truly is a good ‘ol boy. A Texan through and through who makes his living as an electrician, Woodruff enjoys a good time, is a little bit of a redneck and completely homophobic. As such it comes as a shock to everyone who knows him and mostly Ron Woodruff himself when in 1986 he is diagnosed with AIDS.
After he is diagnosed, Woodruff is given a highly toxic drug as treatment and told he has a month to live. The electrician refuses to accept this diagnosis as a death sentence. When he realizes that big pharmaceutical companies are not on his side, Woodruff decides to turn to the underground to seek out his treatment. Soon the Texan is seeking out any number of alternative treatments to try and save his own life. He finds success, but his fight does not end there. He now has a fight with FDA and even the American government when he tries to disseminate the information about the treatment that worked on him. It becomes painfully clear that the health and what is best for those suffering from AIDS is not what is most important to the politically corrupt that are financially benefitting from the suffering of those afflicted with AIDS.
Like Theron before him Matthew McConaughey is the main reason to see this film. And also like Theron he manages to make us care about an unlikable character. You might not like Woodruff and the way he thinks but you still root for him and want him to succeed. Another strong performance in the film is by Jared Leto in a supporting role. Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Fight Club) plays Rayon, another man stricken with AIDS. He turns in one of his strongest performances filled with real emotion as he portrays a character filled with unneeded and undeserved pain and anguish over his last few days.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria, C.R.A.Z.Y.), though he does allow things to get away from him occasionally, has done an admirable job. There are times when the film feels a touch too convenient and stereotypical; it still manages to get a message across. He has constructed a socio-political film that sheds light on how the American government doesn’t always do what is best for the people and that in the 80s there was plenty of overt homophobia involved in the treatment of homosexuals who contracted the disease. There are some flaws with the script, but thankfully Vallée, realizing that he has a stellar performance happening in front of his lens, stays out of McConaughey’s way and allows his star to shine.
Embodying the character they are playing is an achievement not often accomplished by an actor, in this film McConaughey is Ron Woodruff. Before his talents were just hinted at, now they are up there on the big screen for everyone to see and be affected by. Don’t be surprised if come Oscar nomination time Matthew McConaughey’s name is read out.
-A Look Inside Dallas Buyers Club