Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)
Films about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s have always been a risky proposition for Hollywood studios. The subject matter is depressing and the characters are either dying or will eventually die. No matter which way you slice it, it is pretty heavy stuff. Because of that, these films are rarely screened in big multiplexes but only in small theaters at LGBT film festivals. Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia is one of the very few exceptions that have achieved box office success.
|Dallas Buyer Club by Jean-Marc Vallee|
Dallas Buyers Club faces the same challenge. The movie almost didn’t get made. No one was willing to bankroll the project before little known French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée took it on and agreed to shoot it on a meager US$5 million budget. Similarly, the script was passed around like a hot potato: Woody Harrelson, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling were all considered for the lead role but showed little interest until it eventually went to Texas native Matthew McConaughey.
The story is based on real-life character Ron Woodroof, a rodeo cowboy who is diagnosed with AIDS and given a month to live. He quickly discovers that only patients selected for clinical trials have access to the latest drugs and that the sale of non-FDA approved medication – even vitamins and protein shots – are illegal. With the help of Rayon, a transgender junkie, Woodroof sets up the Dallas Buyers Club to dispense alternative medication by charging AIDS patients a monthly membership fee rather than selling drugs to them outright.
|McConaughey is transformed beyond recognition|
There has been a lot of buzz about McConaughey’s dramatic weight loss. The actor reportedly shed 47 pounds and secluded himself for six months to prepare for the role. But his performance – a career best – is so much more than the physical transformation he underwent. McConaughey lost half his muscle mass but became twice the actor he was, bringing to life an improbable hero who is bigoted and opportunistic in one light but vulnerable and compassionate in another. Ron Woodroof is the sum of all the characters McConaughey has played in the last 20 years, and the sum is far greater than its parts.
Then there is Jared Leto. The 42-year-old reinvented himself from a B-list pretty boy to a character actor with astonishing grit. His portrayal of Rayon is, in the word, flawless. The unsung heroine shrugs off insults and adversity with dignity and a sense of humor; her inner strength belies her turquoise eye shadow and tongue-in-cheek coquetry. She supplies the sassy yin that balances Woodroof’s redneck homophobic yang. Without Rayon, the two-hour movie about the AIDS epidemic would have been just that: a two-hour movie about the AIDS epidemic. But instead, the screen lights up whenever the odd couple shares the same scene, whether it is playing cards on the hospital bed, bickering in their "home office" or simply buying groceries at the supermarket.
|Leto (left) and McConaughey make the movie|
Dallas Buyers Club ranks among Gravity and Blue Jasmine as the top three dramas I watched in 2013. There are no clichés, no stock characters and no big political statements – only great acting and great storytelling. McConaughey and Leto clinched an Oscar for their lead and supporting roles in the same movie, a feat not achieved since Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River a decade ago. And they won the awards fairly and squarely.