This year's Oscars see a number of good, but not great movies, battling for prizes, and one of the the best battles will come in the best actor category, where Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew McConaughey would appear to be the presumptive favourites, overshadowing what might be Christian Bale's strongest performance in years, a popular comedic turn by Leonardo DiCaprio, and a valedictory trip for the inestimable Bruce Dern. And that's not even considering the snub for Robert Redford's almost wordless carrying of All Is Lost. Maybe it's because Tom Hanks got there first?
Dallas Buyers Club is a picture built around McConaughey's performance, and much of that is playing against Jared Leto, who seems odds-on favourite for the supporting actor statuette. But behind those two star takes, it's easy to miss the fact that there isn't much of a movie there, more like the embryo of a TV movie of the week.
McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, an electrician and rodeo hanger-on who contracted HIV and set up his 'Buyers Club' to circumvent regulations that prevented patients first from getting AZT, which was being trialled, and then, after AZT was approved but found by many patients like Woodruff to be ineffective, from getting other medicines that would help fight the disease's symptoms.
The film has two story arcs. One is Woodruff's own coming to terms with the disease, and with the opprobrium, from his friends and from the general public, most of which stems from the idea that they think of him as gay, which he isn't. This is something resolved through his relationship with Leto's Rayon, a pre-op transexual also HIV positive, and his own gradual acceptance of the wider community. This one works brilliantly—McConaughey's Woodruff's catches all the bigotry, the violence, and the insecurity in the character, and perhaps the most moving scene in the film is when Rayon dresses as a man to visit her father, a banker, and beg money to help Ron's business.
But the other arc, the Buyer's Club itself, is more problematic. The story becomes a steady cycle of Ron getting bad news, fighting it, running afoul of authority, briefly outsmarting authority, and then losing again. This repeats until Ron finally loses his court case against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but is welcomed back to his clinic as if he has won. The villains in the piece are doctors, customs agents, and the FDA, and while the film shows their motivation in protecting their profitable control of medication, it skates around the more interesting issue of how Ron actually functioned. The film realises this; it ends with Ron finally riding a bull, and the metaphor is clear—he was engaged in a struggle, for life as well as for success against authority, that was much like riding a bull: the aim is to stay on as long as you can, but few can stay on forever.
He uses disguises to smuggle drugs, and he plays fast and loose with the idea of his business. But early on in the movie, we've seen that Ron is a hustler—he welches on a bet at the rodeo, and fakes his own arrest to get away from the guys he has cheated. The film never deals with much ambiguity in Ron's Club; how much of it is a hustle? There is no question he uses Rayon as his entry point, so to speak, into the HIV community, and there are some scenes with him in disguise as he smuggles, but overall the story becomes one of Ron turning into a good person through his struggles against the disease.
You can see the TV movie aspect most clearly in the casting of Jennifer Garner, paled into seriousness by makeup, as a composite figure of doctors opposed to the establishment's monopoly focus and control of AZT. She also exists as a love interest of sorts (watch the movie's trailer) to remind the audience that Ron isn't really gay. There's also a fine small bit by Griffin Dunne as the outcast doctor in Mexico from whom Ron learns of and sources alternative treatments.
But the focus of the film is on McConaughey's performance, and it is formidable. Oscar loves actors playing characters with disease or disability; Oscar loves characters on the 'right' side of issues; Oscar loves actors who make impressive changes in their bodies to play a role (and occasionally accepts prostheses as well). All of which bodes well for McConaughey—but isn't meant to belittle his performance. He gets the smaller parts of the character in subtle ways, the bow-legged walk, the inflated swagger, the deflated frustration. Oddly, though, this may not even be his best performance of the year, though it is the most attention-getting and that may be his biggest Oscar trump card—McConaughey is very hot, and very good right now.
Ejiofor has the advantage in playing the lead in just the sort of movie whose worthiness Oscar also loves, and the smaller advantage of taking the Oscar voters by surprise. Which again is not to demean his performance, which is Oscar worthy, as much to point out that handicapping an award for something as subjective as 'best actor' relies on analysis of the more subjective elements influencing Oscar voters.