From Robert De Niro in Raging Bull to Charlize Theron in Monster, real-life physical transformations have long been a badge of honor among top-tier movie actors willing to risk their health for cinematic authenticity. Usually it’s a matter of gaining or losing a lot of weight in a short period of time to fully inhabit a particular role. This practice reaches new heights of daring and devotion to craft with Matthew McConaughey’s turn as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey shed 50 pounds from his perfect physique to play Woodroof, who was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-1980s and became a folk hero by defying the FDA and the medical establishment to acquire illicit but life-sustaining medications outside the U.S. for himself and others. At a low of 135 pounds, McConaughey’s Woodroof is a shocking yet oddly familiar sight for anyone old enough to remember the early days of the disease.
Just as convincing as McConaughey’s physical presence is the internal transformation he achieves as Woodroof. Dallas Buyers Club takes place at a time when AIDS was not understood by doctors and scientists, and fear and ignorance shaped a widespread public perception of the disease as a “gay plague.” The real-life Woodruff was a straight, macho Texan — an electrician and rodeo rider who was openly bigoted and homophobic as the story begins. Given 30 days to live, he educated himself about AIDS at the library and soon understood that science — and the pharmaceutical companies — were moving too slowly to address the crisis. Woodroof’s story becomes one of enlightenment as he learns to care for others unlike himself who also are battling the disease. McConaughey manages the finest work of a recently rejuvenated career to make that journey believable.
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It’s not hard to imagine Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee struggling to keep up with McConaughey’s tough-as-nails performance when crafting other aspects of the film. Vallee handled the 25-day shoot by using techniques that have trickled up from indie films to Hollywood in recent years, often resulting in realistic and affecting movies. Using mostly natural light and keeping wardrobe and make-up needs to a minimum, Vallee relied on script and performances to carry the film while leaving room for actors to move freely in filming locations. The resulting look and feel fall somewhere in between the normally distinct worlds of narrative and documentary film. The director’s ace in the hole is Jared Leto (Requiem For a Dream) as the transgendered Rayon, Woodroof’s business partner in the medicine-supplying buyers club. Vallee claims to have never met the real Leto because the actor stayed completely in character at all times on set. As Rayon, Leto provides the heart and soul the movie needs and otherwise would have lacked.
Dallas Buyers Club is no gay-rights message movie, but its arrival in an era of relative acceptance symbolized by the advent of marriage equality alters the experience of the film significantly. In development for more than 20 years, Dallas Buyers Club certainly strikes fewer raw nerves today than it would have in the 1990s. The story may come from a now distant past, but its unspoken plea for tolerance and understanding seems unlikely to go out of date any time soon.
Dallas Buyers Club starts today, Friday, November 22, at the Elmwood Palace and Canal Place Theaters.