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By Rick Kisonak | November 25, 2013

Movie star trajectories more commonly work the other way. Important actors traditionally make the films for which they’re remembered early on and run out the career clock doing work fans wish they could forget. To appreciate the anomaly Matthew McConaughey’s become, it’s helpful to compare his output over the past few years with that of, say, Robert De Niro (though precisely the same case could be made substituting the late in the game work of anyone from Richard Burton to Marlon Brando):

Since 2010 the legendary thespian’s highlights have included two direct-to-video duds (Freelancers and The Killing Season), Little Fockers, The Big Wedding, The Family and Last Vegas. Coming up in 2014-Grudge Match with Sylvester Stallone. Two rivals come out of retirement for one last fight. Get it? The Raging Bull vs Rocky. They should call this one before the first round even starts.

In contrast, McConaughey has spent the same period eclipsing decades of dumb romantic comedies (two-count-em-two with Kate Hudson) by taking on increasingly ambitious roles in pictures such as Bernie, Killer Joe, Mud and Magic Mike. Coming up in 2014-Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s trippy follow up to Inception in which explorers traverse the cosmos through wormholes.

Nothing better exemplifies the actor’s professional metamorphosis than the force of nature performance he gives in Dallas Buyers Club. You’ve seen the tabloid shots of the actor so skeletal it’s unclear what’s holding his pants up. Now you can see the reason he put himself through such a punishing transformation. And you should. Even if the movie isn’t quite as excellent as he is.

Directed by Montrealer Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) from a script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, the film tells the liberally embellished story of Ron Woodroof, a real life Texas party animal who found himself facing a death sentence when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. Straight and crazy about whisky, coke, rodeos, speed and loose women-not necessarily in that order-he’s adamant his doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner) have made a mistake until a visit to the library puts him wise to the perils of intravenous drug use and unprotected sex.

Given 30 days to live, he does his homework and sets about rustling up substances with a better chance of offering a reprieve than the treatment given its blessing by the FDA (the movie’s villain). Research alerts him to the existence of unapproved but effective substances which he’s forced to smuggle in from Mexico and other countries. The long lost Griffin Dunne is great as Woodroof’s south of the border connection.

Basically Lorenzo’s Oil meets Urban Cowboy-only the bulls are real-the film itself is a boilerplate heart-tugger about a foul mouthed homophobe who overcomes his prejudices. Its creators play fast and loose with the facts (Woodroof was a rodeo fan; he never actually rode in his life), making up one central character altogether. Jared Leto’s spectacular in the role of Rayon, the colorful, cross dressing AIDS victim with whose help here Woodroof sets up an operation selling virus-fighting cocktails out of a seedy motel. Like a lot of things in Dallas Buyers Club, he’s just a little too good to be true.

McConaughey’s performance, however, is not one of them. This is the real deal, 180 degrees removed from the approach Tom Hanks took in Philadelphia (set in the same year) but not an iota less convincing. The combination of that cadaverous visage, redneck rage and cowboy cockiness yields an affecting portrait of a complex man defying the odds-and the authorities-by trying to figure out how to survive a plague while big pharma worked on ways to make a buck off it.

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  1. Don R. Lewis says:

    I agree totally with your McConaughey assessment both here and career-wise, he’s FANTASTIC in “Dallas Buyers Club.” But his (and Jared Leto’s awesome role/performance) can’t change the fact this is a pretty bad movie. I wish it had been better written and directed because as it is, it’s a waste of some great performances!

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