There’s been no shortage of commentary on the second act of Matthew McConaughey’s career, and for good reason — the Texas actor and heartthrob transformed himself, in the space of a mere calendar year, from the snort-worthy star of interchangeable dopey romantic comedies to one of our most interesting and unpredictable actors. So the fact that he is so very good, tough, touching, human, and physically astonishing (he lost nearly 40 pounds for his latest role), isn’t quite news. What’s interesting about his new film, Dallas Buyers Club, is the similarly remarkable work of Jared Leto, another actor whom we’d all but written off.
The two actors have mounted their comebacks in sharply different manners. The genius of McConaughey’s reinvigoration is that it’s not a reinvention; he’s not a Gary Oldman-style chameleon, and he’s not playing anyone that far out his previously established range of good-looking, easy-going Southerners. The key difference is that he’s playing them in movies that take these guys seriously — and, consequently, so does he. It’s similar to when Robin Williams finally had a critical and commercial hit with Good Morning, Vietnam; his familiar persona was put to use in a serious vehicle, where he was surrounded with real actors and real stakes.
Leto, on the other hand, is barely recognizable in Dallas Buyers Club. He lost 30 pounds to play Rayon, a trans HIV patient who befriends (kinda, sorta) McConaughey’s Ron Woodruff and becomes his assistant in running the titular “buyers club,” a membership service by which HIV-positive men, like Woodruff, could gain access to medications not yet approved by the FDA.
Their delicate relationship is the human heart of the film. Woodruff, a straight Texas cowboy, begins the film virulently homophobic, particularly when he’s first given his diagnosis (“I ain’t no faggot, man! I don’t even know no faggots!”). His initial encounters with gay men in support groups are, to put it mildly, strained. But he can’t maintain that wall once he stumbles into the medication-selling scheme — in fact, to make it work, he has to become a better person. His very livelihood depends on these relationships. And that’s where Rayon comes in.
“Lotsa customers here, darlin’,” she drawls, dragging Woodruff into a gay bar, and the arc is underway. Sure, Rayon is a type; the free-spirited, life-lusting queen full of earthy humor and slightly overcooked tragic tendencies has been done and done, and the two characters’ dynamic is an awful lot like that of Hanks and Washington in Philadelphia (to name but the most obvious example). But that doesn’t mean it can’t still play, or that the film’s thematic coup — that by facing his mortality, Woodruff discovers his humanity — lands with any less grace.
Leto’s is a strange case. His breakthrough came on My So-Called Life, but it was a performance that seemed less about his acting skill than his general dreaminess. In the following years, he did work that alternately serviceable (American Psycho, Fight Club), inexplicable (Panic Room, Alexander), and unnoticed (Chapter 27). But his performance in Requiem for a Dream was a powerhouse, a reminder of exactly what he’s capable of, when cast in the right kind of role and not off making terrible rock music. The latter preoccupation is why we haven’t seen much of him lately; Dallas Buyers Club is his first feature film since 2009’s Mr. Nobody. But if he’s got any sense, he’ll make like McConaughey and take advantage of this pleasantly surprising and thoroughly impressive return to the spotlight.