Film Review | Put your shirt on him joining the club in March

Following an electrics accident at work, Ron Woodruf (McConaughey), a devil-may-care rodeo rider, is admitted to his local hospital for treatment. After a routine blood test, he’s found to have HIV, the virus responsible for AIDS, and given only 30 days to live.

This being the 1980s, Woodruf is initially confused at the plausibility of this – after all he’s no “daisy pulling faggot”. Initially dismissive, he eventually educates himself on the virus to discover that his promiscuous behaviour and drug abuse make him a high-risk candidate.

He learns about the drug ‘AZT’, recently cleared for human testing by the food and drug association (FDA) and manages to obtain it illegally. That supply soon runs dry and a new lead takes him across the border to Mexico. While there, he discovers the truth about AZT and an alternative treatment that might keep him alive somewhat longer than predicted. With this knowledge, he returns to Dallas to go into pharmaceutical sales for himself.

It seems Matthew McConaughey is once again the talk of Tinseltown. Talk about a comeback. Following the start of a promising career with films like A Time To Kill and Contact, he became a poster boy, the Texas golden boy, after which came a period of gentle ridicule, mainly for his inability to keep his shirt on during the running time of whichever Kate Hudson/Sandra Bullock/Jennifer Anniston romcom/family adventure he happened to be lending his southern charm to.
Recently, something changed – in fact I can pinpoint the moment. It was William Friedkin’s bizarre but excitingly lo-fi oddity Killer Joe (2011), noted for a scene in which McConaughey, exuding trademark menace, substitutes fried chicken for his penis.

Then came last year’s Mud, a film I greatly admired, not least for his performance of the titular character and finally, after seeing him play a small but key role in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, he now arrives in our cinemas with a Golden Globe-endorsed performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club.

At the risk of reading cynical, an actor dropping half his body weight to play a real-life character diagnosed with HIV and only 30 days to live, sounds like the result of a calculated number crunch to find the ultimate awards bait.

In fact, this script has been circulating for years, landing on the lap of Tom Hanks (rather unimaginatively, given his Oscar-winning turn in Philadelphia) more than once.

We can only be grateful it was turned down by everyone else because this production is super-charged with the raw energy of a film that got made by way of its own burning necessity to exist. McConaughey brings a dynamism and dangerous unpredictability to Woodruf – an edge similar to that of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

His jagged energies are absolutely fitting for a man with nothing to lose and everything to gain, faced with death at every turn. It’s hard to imagine the likes of Hanks doing the part justice.

Likewise, Jared Leto as a transvestite AIDS sufferer and Jennifer Garner as the doctor treating him, manage to reach the truth of their respective characters, portraying them without resorting to caricature.

It’s not a pretty film, and it has moments of great sadness and horror. It makes a case against the FDA by highlighting some disturbing truths concerning the multi-billion pharmaceutical industry.

Its depiction of homophobia makes for a particularly un-PC protagonist, but it is an absolutely positive experience, directed with a solid, assured hand from a script so finely honed it has even less excess fat than McConaughey himself.

Dallas Buyers Club (11)

Dir: Jean-Marc Vallée; US drama 2013, 116 mins; Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner
Premieres Feb 6
Playing Nationwide