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 60 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 40 pounds to play AIDS victim, entrepreneur, and ad-hoc activist Ron Ron Woodroof 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 Ron Woodroof 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.
Woodroof 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 30 days to live. Dallas Buyers Club, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, shows how Woodroof fought the illness: Unable to partake in a clinical trial of the then-experimental AZT, he began obtaining the drug 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, Woodroof 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. Woodroof, 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 Woodroof 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 Woodroof. She beats the crap out of him in a card game played on his hospital bed; he refers to her as “Miss Man,” an endearment wrapped around a jibe. 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 Woodroof outwit the authorities, at one point disguised as a comically convincing priest. Woodroof’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. When she wraps her dressing gown tight around her failing body, it’s as if she’s protecting all the womanly curves she knows she doesn’t have.
Woodroof is a great foil for her, and though the two do more fighting than platonic cooing, the bond between them is clear. Woodroof, 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, the stuttering cowpoke who shows up, hat in hand, at your weathered screen door for a first date. The real Woodroof outlived that 30-day death sentence by some seven years. (He died in 1992.) Late in the movie, Dallas Buyers Club‘s Woodroof, after his body has been battered but not defeated, clambers carefully onto the back of a bull that’s eager to leap out of the gate. We can see McConaughey concentrating on this task as intently as Woodroof would have: Who could risk a broken bone, or even a bruise? But Woodroof manages to stay on the back of that crazy-mad, snorting bull. To this mighty horned beast, he’s probably as light as a gnat, and just as annoying. Sometimes that’s how you get the job done.