So what is up with Matthew McConaughey, who has recently and magically transformed from a glib, South-in-his-mouth Hollywood hack to an actor of uncommon voltage and depth? In Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Mud, and now the even more bedazzling real-life story of a heroic AIDS victim in Dallas Buyers Club, the actor has somehow, in midstream and middle age, channeled a thespian power and screen-seizing moxie. We’ll have some of what he’s having.
Of course, part of the change of scenery and artistry has to do with the chancier and more challenging roles he’s taking on, swapping the shallow pretty-boy parts for anti-heroic and otherwise characters. In the case of the mostly gripping and historically illuminating Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey has dramatically pared his physique down to skin and bones to play Ron Woodroof, a hedonistic rodeo-riding playboy in 1980s Texas who is told to put “his affairs in order” after doctors discover he has HIV.
After the waves of shock and denial and raging against the gods, he takes maverick action against “the man” of the medical world, shirking the then-questionable early uses of AZT in favor of vitamins and supplements he gets from Mexico and elsewhere. The cowboy entrepreneur, and the secretly righteous socio-medical crusader in him, conspires to set up a loophole-hugging “club” system to distribute these FDA-unapproved pills to desperate customers, with the help of a gay victim (Jared Leto). But legalities and various oppressive thumbscrews intervene in his plan in a story that effectively brings us back to the horror story of the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s but ultimately succumbs to formulaic drama ploys. Too much of the generic “white hats versus black hats” dynamics robs the film of the engaging reality factor early on.
Music, and the sometimes dubious modern movie business of song placement, plays a clever role here, as when a scene of our hero’s sudden ostracism at his go-to bar — his friends wield a homophobic cudgel — is paired with Kenny Roger’s “Ruby,” a song about a disabled vet bemoaning his woman’s seeking out of an “intact” and healthy stranger’s embrace. During the end credits, T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, whose image on a poster plays a part in the narrative, sings what could be the film’s anthem by proxy, “Life Is Strange.”
Beyond the particulars of the story and historical milieu, Dallas Buyers Club is another impressive feather in the Stetson for McConaughey, who plays that certain type of American hero so well — the tough-minded lone wolf bucking a faulty officialdom and fighting a good fight on his/her own terms.