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McConaughey gets naked emotionally, for once

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Jared Leto, left, and Matthew McConaughey make strange bedfellows in Dallas Buyers Club.

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Jared Leto, left, and Matthew McConaughey make strange bedfellows in Dallas Buyers Club.

A few short years ago, Matthew McConaughey had become something of a thespian joke, mocked for his narcissistic tendency to take his shirt off in bad movies (Sahara, Fool's Gold, Failure to Launch).

Give the guy credit: He turned it around in a series of unexpected roles -- the loutish Hollywood agent in Tropic Thunder, a psychotic contract killer/cop in Killer Joe and a lovelorn fugitive in Mud.

McConaughey achieves a kind of redemptive career zenith with Dallas Buyers Club, playing a role that hews close to his offscreen good-time-Charlie persona.

Ron Woodroof is a hard-partying Texas electrician, a moustachioed macho man whose interests include unprotected sex, drugs, rodeo riding and unwise gambling.

In the mid-'80s, Ron's lifestyle catches up with him. After an accident on the job, he wakes up in a hospital where he discovers he has tested positive for HIV. He is told he has a month to live and advised to "get his affairs in order."

At the time, AIDS was deemed a "gay disease." In the right-wing Christian enclaves of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, it was deemed God's wrath on the sin of homosexuality.

In that judgmental climate, Ron is first affronted. But as it becomes clear his time may indeed be running out, he employs the gifts of the natural-born hustler to secure drugs that may prolong his life, even as he loses his posse of redneck friends, who are quick to ostracize him.

In sync with Ronald Reagan's apathy towards the outbreak, the medical establishment is slow to respond to the crisis. The FDA permits drug trials with a dubious treatment: AZT. Ron secures some pills, self-medicates and almost dies. But he finds greater success under the care of a disgraced physician (Griffin Dunne) who offers a "cocktail" of vitamins and non-approved drugs that help him regain some of his health.

Ron takes the treatment back to Texas, where he organizes the "buyers club" of the title to secure viable treatment for the HIV-afflicted, a move that simultaneously puts the homophobic Ron in the same camp as Dallas's gay community and in pitched battle with the medical establishment.

He does find a sympathetic ear with one doctor (Jennifer Garner) and an unlikely partner in a would-be transsexual who calls herself Rayon (Jared Leto, disturbingly pretty). As skilfully played by Leto, Rayon knows a thing or two about hustling, and provides Ron with a gateway into the community he can't reach himself.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) keeps the story grounded by mapping a solid inspirational character arc for Woodroof, from exploiter to advocate. But McConaughey takes it to the next level, not just in his much-publicized 50-pound weight loss he took upon himself for the role, but in his deeper embrace of the character. In the past, the actor's swagger and syrupy charm have been off-putting. But in a scene where the scrawny, sickly Ron attempts to muster his old swagger for the benefit of the good doctor, it pays off as a poignant display of resilience.

Both McConaughey and Leto are Oscar nominees in 2014. Bet on it.

 

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2013 D5

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