One of the most essential scenes in understanding the transformation of Matthew McConaughey’s career is, as it happens, one of the least essential scenes in the Dallas Buyers Club. It’s an innocuous dinner conversation between AIDS patient Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) and his empathetic but largely helpless doctor (Jennifer Garner).
Woodroof, a hard-drinking electrician and rodeo hand who could die at virtually any moment, is turning on the charm to thank or sweet-talk the pretty doctor, or just gauge what he still has left.
Five or six years ago, scenes like this were what McConaughey was known for – the smooth-talking ladykiller. Some 60 pounds lighter, when he smiles broadly at Garner, we see muscles stretched tight in his gaunt face, muscles he has no occasion to use anywhere else in this film, either physically or emotionally. That is really the shell of McConaughey on display in the Dallas Buyers Club; he’s not just a handsome face anymore.
He’s been on this path for a couple years, doing very good work in films like Mud and Magic Mike. And though Jared Leto deserves heaps of praise for own terrific performance as Woodroof’s transvestite business partner, it’s McConaughey chopping down the mountains. There’s no question that this is his finest work and one of the signature performances of 2013.
The film focuses on Woodroof’s fight for survival and his fight against the FDA. In the mid-1980s, patients waited to die more than they waited for a cure, but Woodroof tried to buck the system. He imported unapproved vitamins and proteins to keep himself – and hundreds like him – alive. Buyers’ clubs like his were not uncommon; selling memberships and giving away the meds was a strange loophole in the system.
It’s a fascinating story that time had forgotten. But with McConaughey’s portrayal, that’s not likely to happen again anytime soon.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto. Directed by Jean-March Vallee. Rated R, 117 minutes.