Film and TV

Matthew McConaughey gets physical in Dallas Buyers Club

Weight-loss and weight-gain performances are tricky things. Robert De Niro's heavily mannered turn in Raging Bull just has to be great — he gained sixty pounds for it, didn't he? For his role in The Machinist, Christian Bale dropped to a sub-skeletal 122 pounds — he looked like a walking, talking Shroud of Turin. But the memory of his gaunt frame looms larger than any of the subtle shifts of expression or nuances of vocal tone he might have used to shape the performance. The body, skinny or fat, is one of an actor's essential tools; it can also be a greedy scene-stealer.

Matthew McConaughey lost forty pounds to play AIDS victim, entrepreneur and ad hoc activist Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club. His figure is so attenuated you can almost hear his bones cracking as he walks; his gait is that of a slow-motion alien, his neck one long stretch of tendons à la E.T. But there's never a moment when you don't see the whole person. McConaughey's Woodruff is a fully rounded "Y'all go fuck yourselves" folk hero, and the space he takes up in the world is anything but the negative kind.

Woodruff was a real person, an electrician from Dallas who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 — he'd contracted the virus from a forgotten heterosexual encounter — and given thirty days to live. Dallas Buyers Club, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, shows how Woodruff fought the illness: Unable to partake in a clinical trial of the then-experimental drug AZT, he began obtaining it through back channels. Eventually, he began importing other drugs from Mexico and elsewhere, selling them at a profit to those in need, and also using them to keep himself alive. Previously, Woodruff had seen AIDS as "the gay disease." But the more he learned about the virus and its possible treatments — and the harder he worked to wriggle around FDA regulations — the more he came to care about his fellow sufferers.

What's remarkable about Dallas Buyers Club is its lack of sentimentality. The movie, like its star, is all angles and elbows, earning its emotion through sheer pragmatism. Woodruff, a man with a job to do, enlists help from a number of acquaintances, usually by first taking advantage of them. They include his physician, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who's dismayed when she learns Woodruff is breaking the rules but who later shifts to his side; and a fellow AIDS patient named Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual who, in a marvelous scene, manages to both charm and challenge the (at first) aggressively homophobic Woodruff. They begin a business partnership that evolves into a friendship, bickering like the Honeymooners all the way.

Vallée, whose previous credits include the melodrama Café de Flore and the historical romance The Young Victoria, keeps a tight hold on the movie's tone. Sometimes the picture works as a procedural: It's fun, in a vicarious way, to watch Woodruff outwit the authorities, at one point disguised as a comically convincing priest. Woodruff's methodology is heavily dependent on his scrawny-cowboy swagger, his manner of dealing both with the people who stand in his way and with those he counts among his friends. McConaughey and Leto are wonderful in their scenes together: Leto's Rayon, with her fluttery voice and even more fluttery hands, makes a better Blanche DuBois stand-in than Cate Blanchett did in Blue Jasmine. Her vulnerability isn't just emotional and existential, it's physical.

Woodruff is a great foil for her, and though the two do more fighting than platonic cooing, the bond between them is clear. Woodruff, in the days before he got sick, was a hard-drinking, girl-chasing bull rider. But with Rayon, he's always a gent; his consideration for her is almost courtly. McConaughey can pull off that sort of thing: One minute he's a cocky Marlboro Man, the next he's the stuttering cowpoke who shows up, hat in hand, at your weathered screen door for a first date. The real Woodruff outlived that thirty-day death sentence by some seven years (he died in 1992).

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.