The tagline to Matthew McConaughey’s last, bad romantic comedy, 2009’s Ghosts of Girlfriends Past goes: “You can’t always run from your past”, a maxim the Texan actor seems to have been determined to disprove.
After spending the Noughties in romcom purgatory, albeit mostly with bikini-clad co-star Kate Hudson, McConaughey turned definitively left with multiplex-averse appearances in Richard Linklater’s Bernie (2011), Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012).
Even if the latter of these promised A-lister male strippers for cinema-going hen parties, a combination of Soderbergh’s downbeat direction and McConaughey’s twitchy turn as the head honcho of a Floridian Chippendales crew eschewed any notion that Magic Mike would be a simple flesh-fest.
Dallas Buyers Club continues this left-field trajectory with McConaughey bringing that same fired-up restiveness as a hedonistic, homophobic cowboy who has to face and share demons with those he hates. It’s the real-life story of Texan Ron Woodroof, a rodeo hand who, in 1985, was diagnosed with Aids and told he had 30 days to live. So far, so not How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
Woodroof, at first confounded at waking up in a ward of gay men suffering from the same disease (“I ain’t no faggot motherfucker”), decides to deal with a death sentence by fighting it. When he can’t get the drugs he thinks might save him, he seeks alternative treatments, raising the ire of the big pharmaceuticals more interested in big bucks than prolonging life.
Along the way, he finds an unlikely cohort in a transgender woman and drug addict, Rayon, played by Jared Leto. The two set up a subscription service to supply the medication the medical profession won’t provide. In the meantime, Woodroof learns tolerance and gains respect.
The actor is served well by a tight, no-punches-pulled script (when Woodroof realises US health regulator the Food and Drug Administration stands in the way of him and life-saving drugs, he shouts: “Fuck the FDA, I’m gonna be DOA”), Jean-Marc Vallée’s largely unsentimental direction and Leto’s Oscar-baiting disappearing act into the role of Rayon.
Dallas Buyers Club is a redemption tale but it is not so straightforward. For all Woodroof’s Good Samaritan work in the gay community, he is driven by the desire for his own survival. As co-star Leto says of the characters: “They served each other; she needed him, he needed her. [It was] not just business; it was almost an excuse for the deeper reason. They were both these characters trapped in circumstances beyond their control, doomed and fighting for their lives.”
It’s as a fighter, not a lover, that McConaughey has found his new groove at the top of Hollywood. His Magic Mike character Dallas thrusts as if his life depends on it, which it does; as Mark Hanna in The Wolf of Wall Street, he rattles through coke and cash like it’s the end of that universe, which it soon will be; his latest incarnation rears up spectre-like from the grave, rattled by death and seething with life. For the actor, it’s the ghosts of romcom past that are well and truly buried.
Dallas Buyers Club is out tomorrow; The Academy Awards is on 2 March. Taken from Esquire's March issue, on newsstands now.