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Handsome Half was on a roll this past week and we ended up with two Matt McConaughey films from the Seattle Public Library. We’ve wanted to see Dallas Buyers Club since its release. The fact that the film later generated two Academy Awards (for both McConaughey and co-star Jared Leto) didn’t hurt either.

Film reviewers have been praising McConaughey’s performances ever since The Lincoln Lawyer, noting his increasing sublety and depth. Personally, I’ve been impressed since his early work opposite Jodie Foster in Contact. First of all, he was holding his own opposite one of the best and most intelligent actresses in the business. Second of all, the film, basically, was a series of debates on science vs. faith and hope, and the two actors required considerable skill to keep it interesting without making it preachy. And it worked. That doesn’t happen by phoning in a performance.

But, even watching Dallas Buyers Club, I still got it: McConaughey was Ron Woodroof, from his lanky, lean cowboy amble down to his sweat; you could almost smell the sex and booze from his pores. Many great performances grab you from the first moment onscreen, and this is one of those. Woodroof is a boozer, an amateur rodeo cowboy, and incessant, compulsively prowling sex cat. And a classic homophobic redneck to boot. McConaughey makes all this believable, fearlessly, and makes it look easy.

Once his AIDS is diagnosed, Woodroof embarks on a campaign of self-education and awareness, displaying a side of himself never suspected before. In fact, he becomes a surprisingly successful entrepreneur, setting up a “buyers Club” for people who need HIV meds. McConaughey’s skill makes all this transformation believable, and not in one of those sudden-epiphany ways, either.

I wish I could say the same about Jared Leto’s performance, but I can’t, but only because I’ve never seen anything else he’s done. I’d heard of him but, not having seen him onscreen, I have nothing to compare him to. I will say, though, that I thought his performance as the drag queen Rayon was amazing and believable. Leto’s challenge was that Rayon needed to be tough enough and strong enough to earn Woodruff’s respect and to turn him from homophobe to friend. All this occurs, almost before you realize it, due to the complexity and subtlety of both the acting and the writing.

Now, of course, the script is based on a true story, but scriptwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack and director Jean-Marc Vallee respect its roots enough to avoid sensationalism or condescension. Even Woodroof’s relationship with an epidemiologist, Eve (Jennifer Garner), avoids histrionic fights or feel-good endings. Their romantic relationship ends, but they still remain friends who respect each other.

The result is a true-life story that’s interesting, infuriating, heartbreaking and heartwarming, all at the same time. We see the anger–the fury–of those PWAs who find their lives taking second place to financial and political priorities, and come to respect their strength and determination to fight on and regain power over their lives, even in the face of certain death.

The protagonists succumbed to the disease which still stalks us, but their stories live on to remind us all of how much we still have at stake. And stories such as Dallas Buyers Club tell us that human courage, resilience, and cussedness continue to carve out small victories against any unsurmountable odds.
The other film is Mud, a lower-profile feature than Buyers Club, but still blessed by McConaughey’s presence and, once again, a strong supporting cast.

Mud is actually not McConaughey’s film; it’s actually a coming of age story about two teen-age boys in the Mississippi delta: Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Nick “Neckbone” (Jacob Lofland). They putter around the delta in a small motorboat until they find a deserted island with a larger boat lodged in a tree, left there by a monstrous storm. The boys want the boat for their own, until they discover that someone else has already claimed it, a mysterious drifter who calls himself Mud.

His story is simple: he’s in hiding because he killed a man abusing a woman he’s in love with, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). She’s living somewhere in the town and he wants her to run away with him.

The boys, in their innocence, agree to help. But, of course, life never goes according to plans. Ellis finds his heart broken by an older teen girl he’s been crushing on, the same time as his parents’ marriage collapses. Neckbone, who never knew his parents, finds the grit to persevere with the impoverished life he’s scrabbled out with his uncle. And bounty hunters and vengeful relatives descend upon the town, setting the stage for a brutal climax.

This film, of course, is more fictional than Buyers Club and teeters a bit unevenly. Ellis’s story is quite touching and heartfelt and gives the film its strength. The outer story, of Mud and Juniper, works for the most part, but I thought the bad guys were fairly one-sided, and the violence of the climax seemed pretty over-the-top and not as character driven as the rest of the film. But the bittersweet ending felt true to life, saving the movie from cheap and easy feelgoodness.

McConaughey is good in his loose-limbed, laidback style, and made his character credible. His presence resonates even when he wasn’t on-screen. But more of the film’s strength comes from its supporting cast: Sam Shepard as Tom, an old man with a connection to Mud’s past, and Reese Witherspoon. She’s been seen all too infrequently of late, and seeing her as Juniper is a reminder of how much she’s been missed.

She’s a loose woman, a typical bar tramp, but she gives the role depth and sympathy; you know she still loves Mud. That love tears her apart with guilt and regret, but she can’t go back to him, for very good reasons. I’d seen her name in the credits, so that was the only way I recognized her. Handsome Half couldn’t believe it, because she disappeared so completely into the role (and she looked so different from her roles in Legally Blonde and Man in Black).

The real surprises were Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. At one point Handsome Half asked me, “Where did they find these boys?” They seemed so natural and their friendship seemed so plausible. Well, the Texas-born Tye’s been around a few years and has already earned awards for this role. The Arkansas-born Lofland’s resume is shorter: this is his first film role. Keep an eye out for more from these talented newcomers.

Writer/Director Jeff Nichols deserves praise for this intelligent movie and his restrained script and direction. Despite its few flaws, the movie stands as one of the better coming-of-age stories as the boys learn that life and love is messy and painful but can still bring surprising benefits. It’s also a worthy addition to Matt McConaughey’s filmography and is well worth taking the time to watch.

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