Twenty years ago, Texas boy Matthew McConaughey preached the “just keep livin’” credo to his on-screen pals (and movie audiences) as Wooderson, that scene-stealing horndog in Dazed and Confused. So, seeing him work his dramatic chops in Dallas Buyers Club as a dying party boy looking to stretch out his time on Earth doesn’t even seem all that odd. Hell, he’s practically playing Wooderson again, except he’s more cynical, more repugnant and more human.
McConaughey dropped over 50 pounds, appearing near skeletal—like his Reign of Fire co-star Christian Bale notoriously did in The Machinist—to play Ron Woodroof, a real-life bull-riding electrician who became a homeopathic drug peddler after contracting HIV and later developing AIDS. As the movie begins, circa 1985, McConaughey’s Woodroof immediately introduces himself as a skeevy, amoral mess. Already skin and bones, he still is boozing, snorting coke, swindling cowboys out of money, punching cops and having quickie sex with skankified gals. And, to add the cherry on the top of this shit sundae, he’s also a racist, sexist homophobe.
Of course, once our protagonist gets alerted of his condition by doctors, they give him about a month to live; he scoffs at the prognosis, constantly declaring he’s not an F-word. Eventually, he comes to terms with it, scheming to buy AZT, the new, FDA-sanctioned medication for HIV patients, from an orderly when the hospital turns him away. When the AZT dries out and his condition worsens, the orderly directs him to a doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dunne, rocking Arlo Guthrie hair), who can hook him up with non-toxic, FDA-unapproved meds that supposedly do a better job soothing the sick than AZT.
Forever the small-time hustler that he is, Woodroof arranges a deal with the doc to sell this medicine back in Texas. It soon becomes a booming business for Woodroof, who turns this underground drug racket into a full-fledged buyers club, charging ailing folk $400 a month for his cocktails. He mostly draws in customers with help from unlikely partner, Rayon (Jared Leto), a coke-snorting trans woman with AIDS. As the doctors and the FDA start cracking down on Woodroof’s operation, they both find an ally in Dr. Eve Saks, a physician (Jennifer Garner) at the hospital.
As much as director Jean-Marc Vallée gives Dallas Buyers Club a visually dingy aesthetic—he and cinematographer Yves Bélanger shoot the film all hand-held and Soderbergh-like—this is quintessential Oscar bait. Screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack adapted Bill Minutaglio’s 1992 Dallas Morning News article on Woodroof, liberally using creative license just like most fact-based features that drop this time of year. It takes out actual people in Woodroof’s life, like his daughter and girlfriend, and adds some fabricated ones, like the characters Leto and Garner play. And still, the movie keeps you riveted, even when the conclusion seems obvious. We know this story will have Woodroof traveling a painful but necessary road to redemption, shedding his questionable behavior—his true sickness, some would say—and ultimately becoming an urban savior.
What keeps you thoroughly fascinated throughout are the performances by McConaughey and Leto. Sure, this odd-couple pairing exists merely to show Woodroof’s evolution from hateful degenerate to life-saving drug dealer, with him learning to respect—and, dare I say, like—his queer-dressing associate. And while this gives McConaughey and Leto plenty of scenes where they show off their ball-busting chemistry, they turn out some emotional moments individually.
Finally using his androgynous good looks (he is the leader of rock band 30 Seconds to Mars, after all) to his advantage, Leto plays his character as a spunky, fragile creature. Sporting a build that’s skinnier and more frail than McConaughey’s, Rayon is both sassy and scared, vulnerable and closed-off, fearful of death yet prepared for the inevitable. Yeah, Leto’ll definitely be getting some award nods.
But we shouldn’t forget this is McConaughey’s world. He remains a magnetic presence, his soft-spoken Southern drawl and slithery charm keeping you from fully despising this guy Woodroof. You want to see the son-of-a-bitch go on and succeed right until the very end.
It’s kind of unfortunate that McConaughey’s showy performance in Dallas Buyers Club will outshine that other award-worthy turn he gave earlier this year in Jeff Nichols’ Mud. Apart from getting a crazy tattoo on his body and chomping on fake teeth, he didn’t have to transform himself much for that role, but it was just as impressive as the one McConaughey gives here. Both performances have him playing a self-deluded outlaw who ultimately has to look inward not just to get out of the hole he put himself in and move on, but selflessly help those around him.
For Matthew McConaughey, who’s now grown into a wiser, bolder actor, “just keep livin’” isn’t just a motto from a 20-year-old breakthrough role. It’s an insistence he’s conveyed in every performance since.