I am uncomfortable with term “McConnaissance.” It implies that Matthew McConaughey has emerged from the Dark Ages into a new period of previously unsurpassed artistic quality, when the truth is he’s been amazing for years, albeit criminally miscast in one film after another. For every forgettable performance in films like Contact or Fool’s Gold it was easy to find him turning in impressive work in more unusual roles, like in Frailty, Amistad or even the bug nuts Reign of Fire.
So when Matthew McConaughey started getting extra attention for his remarkable performances in Magic Mike and Killer Joe last year, it didn’t surprise me. Although it has been exciting to see him consistently gravitate towards films that actually make good use of his character actor talents instead of just his pervasive shirtlessness and dapper, dapper smile. That streak continued into 2013 with the heartening Mud and now blows into full Oscar bait potential with Dallas Buyers Club, a film that seems custom made to break hearts and give McConaughey a character with just enough flaws to make it seem special in a career full of even better performances (and, admittedly, also crap like The Wedding Planner).
McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, a real-life AIDS patient diagnosed in 1986 as having only 30 days to live. Instead of accepting defeat, Woodruff engaged in illegal activity to import non-FDA approved medications into the United States from Mexico, saving his life – for the time being – in the process. But when the law gets involved, Woodruff has to start the “Dallas Buyers Club,” an organization in which members pay a monthly fee and get all the medication they want, and therefore exploit a seemingly major legal loophole.
It’s an Us vs. Them allegory set against the very real, very dramatic and very meaningful backdrop of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. McConaughey gets to stand up to “The Man,” wrestle with his mortality, express constant strength of conviction and even overcome his lifelong homophobia when he takes on a flamboyant business partner played by Jared Leto, who brings a lot of life to a character that devolves into a distracting melodramatic plot point well before the film’s end.
It’s a carefully constructed series of Oscar bait concepts that, if we’re being honest, does work. Dallas Buyers Club is meant to inspire and give Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto the roles of their lifetimes, if only as far as people who don’t watch a lot of their movies are concerned. Both actors have been better before, but they still turn in stellar work. It helps that all their emotional beats are laid out cleanly on the page, but more importantly it helps that McConaughey and Leto are talented enough to bring these characters to life when they could easily have been played as rote dramatic clichés in the hands of lesser actors.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée films Dallas Buyers Club with alternately oversaturated and drab tones that make the movie look as fragile as his heroes’ bodies, but he finds ways to liven up the cinematography in ways that also capture the liveliness of, yes, their spirit. It’s hard to describe even the finer points of Dallas Buyers Club without dipping into sentimentality. But it’s a sentimental film, just harsh enough to treat the subject matter seriously but always erring on the side of weepy humanism. That’s not a flaw, that’s just a genre. And as entries into the Oscar-bait-melodrama-socially-conscious-message-movie-with-characters-who-are-flawed-into-distracting-perfection genre go, this is a really good one. Even the jaded are bound to notice the film’s strong craftsmanship, noteworthy performances and reasonable, albeit contrived approach to serious issues.
The McConnaissance is in full swing, as indeed it should always have been. Dallas Buyers Club straddles the line between Hollywood conformity and indie edge, making it safe to appreciate from both sides of the fence. And if nothing else, McConaughey is really, really great in it.