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Michael Berkowitz

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Dallas Buyers Club: Priceless!

Posted: 12/03/2013 12:28 pm

No actor has done more interesting work in the last few years than Matthew McConaughey. His acting in the just released "Dallas Buyers Club" stands as the very best by an American actor this year. He displays the extraordinary range that makes him a sure Oscar contender if not winner and the most sure handed, evocative worker in American film today.

McConaughey is Ron Woodroof, the hard living electrician/rodeo cowboy who rides the range and the raunch to contract HIV. It's the 1980s, so Woodroof, the actual Buyers Club founder, is handed a death sentence. With his T-Cell level at 9, the hospital doctors give him 30 days to live.

But Woodruff is tough and resilient, a throwback to the American frontiersman who uses his native intelligence, creativity and street smarts to survive. Using whatever resources he can from the library and research studies to the experiences of other patients, he finds the limits and dangers of hospital prescribed AZT. Instead, largely through trial and error, he assembles a cocktail of not always FDA approved drugs which help him prolong his life for months and years.

Woodroof is no saint. Even as he is able to survive, he continues the alcohol and drug abuse and unprotected random sex that led to his infection. This real life cowboy never gives up the lifestyle that threatens his life, never gives up riding the bull even if it eventually kills him.

So realizing his need and the use of his findings, he sets up the Dallas Buyers Club to profit from the plague, but can't help but help others. His contact with those infected, as well as his own affliction, move Woodroof slowly from vicious homophobe to a broader vision and even a bit of social advocacy as he builds the Buyers Club. Through the circumstances of his treatment, Woodroof's closest ally becomes the transgendered Rayon, Jared Leto in a brilliant, unblinking, sensitive, unpatronizing, spot on characterization. Its almost as if the 50 and 30 pounds respectively that McConaughey and Leto had to lose for these roles was the casting aside of artifice and manner that let them cut to the bone of their characters.

In Ron Woodruff's progression is a bit of the story of Matthew McConaughey. The pretty boy star's early work was a succession of middling romantic comedies and adventure movies . . . the aptly titled "Failure to Launch," the desert of "Sahara," "Wedding Planner," "Maid in Manhattan," "How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days," and the less than haunting "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past." Sure the promise was always there, the flashes in "Time to Kill," "Amistad," "Lone Star," "Frailty." But more than anything, he was the dashing, romantic lead who hardly plumbed the water for its depth.

His turn in "Lincoln Lawyer," a darker, more morally ambiguous role, changed all that. McConaughey followed it up with black comedies where he was more villain than hero. In "Bernie" he was the unpleasant and unpopular District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson who nails Jack Black's Bernie to a life sentence for killing the obnoxious Shirley MacLaine. As the nasty hit man title character in Tracy Lett's brilliant "Killer Joe," he takes turns dispensing mayhem and chewing up the scenery with Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple. While "Magic Mike" borders on a slightly off color romance, "The Paperboy" and "Mud" are far more serious noir faire which drag us through the swamp of southern social relationships with force, flexing the range that creates heart breaking original characters.

So as "The Dallas Buyers Club" chronicles the fall and rise of Ron Woodroof, one cannot help but be struck by the fall and rise of Matthew McConaughey, from cowboy actor to gaunt, knowing, intrepid presence that stared down the vacuous future of an acting death and came up with characterizations original, troubling, personal, vital, touching and heroic.

(Please note: This review is dedicated to my dear friend, intrepid AIDS activist John Iversen, who had me dodging police raids to buy his un-approved drug cocktails at San Francisco Buyers Club. It was those drugs, as well as his friends who fed him and cared for him, that -- much to the chagrin of many government agencies -- kept him and many others alive to this day.)

 
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