The Scrivener continues his look at the Best Picture nominees for 2013. Up next? Jean-Marc Valléé's "Dallas Buyers Club" . AIDS, cowboys and Jared Leto. What's not to love?
The tale of a a cowboy as "wiry as an ocotillo" who is given a 30 day death sentence thanks to a bleak HIV-positive prognosis is a lot of things. It is a historical lesson. It is a socially conscious film. It is also, thankfully, one that breathes deep and lets the tremendous talent at its core do what they do best. Jean-Marc Valléé, best known for things like The Young Victoria and Café de Flore, benefits greatly from a lean script by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack. The period excesses and art house mysticism are left far behind when it comes to the drug addled homophobic roughneck known as Ron Woodroof.
The, electrician by trade, snake-oil charmer that is Woodroof isn't exactly likable. He's crass, gaunt and a surly son of a bitch. He enjoys his women, his booze and drugs of all kinds. He is a man of sharp edges and uncomfortable angles and played to perfection by the resurgent Matthew McConaughey. The Woodroof on-screen is a ghostly slip of a man who, even at his healthiest and sandwiched between two rodeo groupies at the beginning of the film, is tough to look at. The subsequent treatment and struggle only results in further erosion. Physically the transformation that McConaughey went through to bring the character to life is breathtaking. He dropped close to 50 pounds to further inhabit the character's skin and it works like a dream. He moves with a slow gait that is part swagger and part terminal. He talks with a fast drawl, serves only himself and happily engages in smuggling just to make sure he lives another day. He also happens to find wisdom and acceptance of a community of fellow AIDs patients that are in desperate need of some help.
The scene in which Woodroof is given the diagnosis by his doctor following a work-site accident showcases just how brilliant an actor McConaughey has become. Age does that to many of those fresh-faced pretty boy types it seems. John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart both did some of their most vital and resplendent work far later in their careers. McConaughey, not too far from 50 now, has never been better. He was on the verge of becoming a cautionary-tale and a punch-line. Now? He's one of the most reliable and vital actors working in the game today. He has went from Ghosts of Girlfriends Past to this shape-shifting skin walker that, even at his most heinous and downright sleaziest is still possessed of a bucolic purity. The scene in question unfolds with a rattling fury yet there is restraint there. McConaughey shows such an extensive range of expression and control in his performance that sets the tone for the film to come. Ron, so very angry and hateful, evolves into a sort of vague and haunted humanist. McConaughey doesn't seek out the approval of the audience or try to be anything other than what Woodroof was. The commitment and metamorphosis into Woodroof by the Austin-bred native represents acting at its finest.
Woodroof doggedly pursues any means necessary to make it past that 30-day death sentence issued by doctors and, along the way, he meets Rayon. Rayon is a transgender individual who, like Ron, also has been deemed HIV positive. Jared Leto, returning to his film career after a six year hiatus to tour and work in-studio with his band 30 Seconds to Mars, could have let the flamboyant nature of the character really define it. He, instead, did something far better. Rayon is garish, self-loathing and full of the gallantry that only such horrific circumstance can muster. She, like so many others caught up in the epidemic sweeping in during the mid-80's when the film is set, finds it hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Homophobia runs rampant in the community, despair can be found in every doctor's visit and drug-use, pharmaceutical or otherwise, provides some respite. Leto found the humanity in there somewhere and brings it forth full-force. The bond between the two, which felt so natural, is one that reminded me heavily of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. Rayon becomes not only the cowpoke's business partner but also his friend. It evolves naturally and proves to be the strongest pillar the film rests on.
The magnitude of the performances certainly defines the movie but it is also propped up by a director willing to let the emotional weight of the story come from the pragmatism of Woodroof. He is single-mindedly pursuing one thing: extending his life. He just so happens to find a way to make money along the way. This movie could have easily devolved into typical Oscar-bait pap and sentimentality but it didn't. It truly was one of the best films of 2013 and represents yet another step in the complete renaissance of Matthew McConaughey.
Two down. Seven to go. Back soon with another review of the 2013 Oscar Best Picture Nominees.