The Matthew McConaughey renaissance that kicked into full swing into 2011 has been powered by strong acting choices and unique authorial voices behind the camera, largely eschewing the Sahara's and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past's that dominated his filmography up until this point. From Bernie to Magic Mike to Killer Joe to Mud, he's built a reputation on daring performances that use his surplus of charisma in daring and subversive ways. But even the best actors succumb to the siren call of Oscar material, and McConaughey's performance as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club could prove to be just that.
A fast-talking Texas hustler who is discovered to be HIV+ and must struggle to overcome the diagnosis he's been given (30 days left to live) seems right in the awards season wheelhouse, with its terminal illness that allows for a physically transformative performance alongside scenery chewing moments of emotional tumult. Add to that the anti-authoritarian streak that runs a mile wide throughout the film. But McConaughey miraculously avoids many of the pitfalls that trap the “awards-season-based-on-a-true-story” genre by refusing to embrace sentimentality in his performance, instead fearlessly diving into dimensionality. Ron starts the film as a bigot (albeit a genuinely charismatic), and even as his worldview begins to accommodate those he considers different from himself, the film never lets Woodroof off the hook, showcasing his behavior to be equally inspired by mercenary and anti-authoritarian traits just as much as his growing sense of empathy. It's a wonderfully textured performance whose emotional catharses feel earned instead of forced.
If McConaughey's ability to mine gold out of his performance comes as no surprise, the true discovery here is Jared Leto's equally impressive turn as Rayon, an HIV+ transvestite with whom Ron goes into business. Displaying both an emotional and physical fragility that's startling, Leo dives into his performance with gusto and proves every bit up to the challenge as his co-star, creating a genuine uneasy chemistry between the two. Supporting turns from Steven Zahn and Jennifer Garner prove far less integral to the proceedings (Garner's character, while necessary to the story being told, never feels like it fully fits within the emotional framework being built), but don't derail them either.
I appreciate any effort towards making a film cinematic, but many of the choices here seem geared towards handicapping the film's ability to emotionally connect. Stylistic interludes feel more like interlopers, interrupting performance and narrative flow and feeling slightly disconnected from the film as a whole. That said, there's a very effective use of sound design in conveying the pervasive nature of the illness, and a playful sensibility that allows for humor even as all hope is lost (an early plea for heavenly intervention from Ron is a masterful use of comic misdirection) that help the film power past any stylistic hiccups.
In the end Dallas Buyers Club accomplishes its main goal, which is to convey this remarkable story in a way that doesn't sand down its jagged edges while still maintaining a very powerful empathy for the characters and their situation. Tittering amongst the crowd during the early scenes suggesting a kinship with Woodroof's casual homophobia and misogyny were troubling, but as the film (and Ron's perspective) progressed, you could hear a pin drop, both a testament to wonderful work from the film's lead actors and filmmakers who have made a powerful, if uneven tribute to a powerful, if uneven man's life.