Oscar Watch: Dallas Buyers Club

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy! 

Dallas Buyers Club is one of those films whose Oscar buzz seems to be focused in one specific place. In this case, acting. And that’s where the focus should be. The film, while historically important in its treatment of the birth of the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s, is also a bit messy.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. The film has a strange, pulsating energy, which is an odd thing to say about a story involving a man dying of AIDS. The real-life journey of Texas electrician Ron Woodruff to first cure himself and, later on, others, of the deadly disease while fighting with the medical establishment to procure funding for an FDA-approved cure is an often bleak one, but there’s an almost irrational strain of hope that runs through these characters and their mission.

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The awards conversation for Dallas is where it should be: the acting.

The movie is tonally inconsistent, and often prefers grit over polish, which makes its Best Picture nomination curious over more accomplished works such as Saving Mr. Banks, Before Midnight and the overlooked Prisoners. The film probably got a boost from its subject matter, neither a first nor last for the Academy.

All complaints about the overall film dissipate when we witness two of the most astonishing performances in recent film history. As Woodruff, Matthew McConaughey reaches that terrifying critical mass of method acting; I was concerned for Woodruff and his gaunt physical deterioration, but I was also afraid for McConaughey.  He just doesn’t look good. It recalls Christian Bale’s performances in The Fighter and The Machinist, where actor and character blend so perfectly you fear for the actor’s safety. I’ve been a fan of McConaughey for years, but this feels like the first time he’s truly transformed himself. All we see is Woodruff, exuding confidence one minute but sobbing in his car the next.

Equally jaw-dropping is Jared Leto’s supporting performance as Rayon, an AIDS-infected, drug-addicted man in the process of becoming a woman who breaks down the homophobic Woodruff’s defenses and helps him run his unauthorized drug business. A scene where a desperate Rayon dresses in a suit, puts his hair up and walks into his disapproving father’s office asking for money is one of the more heartbreaking acting moments in recent memory.

Leto and McConaughey are the front-runners to win Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor and, while those categories are stacked, it’s hard to bet against them.

The film’s makeup and hair styling is destined for Oscar gold, adding weight to Leto’s and McConaughey’s often startling physical transformations. The film is up for Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s Best Original Screenplay, but it’s hard to see the sometimes-sterile dialogue competing against the crackling intensity of Her, Nebraska, Blue Jasmine or American Hustle.

But, the shortcomings of Dallas Buyers Club do nothing to diminish the two beyond brilliant performances at its center, performances that should be celebrated.

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