Though Matthew McConaughey's dramatic weight loss and gaunt demeanor will get most of the publicity, Dallas Buyers Club (*** out of four; rated R; opening Friday in select cities) is worth seeing for the strength of his full-bodied performance.
After his recent turns in Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Bernie and Mud, McConaughey proves he has evolved from a handsome lightweight to one of the most talented, risk-taking actors in Hollywood.
His performance here is breathtaking. He begins as a twitchy, vulgar, hedonistic homophobe, and emerges an unlikely hero.
McConaughey, minus 38 pounds, plays Ron Woodroof, a Texan electrician whose focus is on seedy after-hours pursuits - riding rodeo broncos and bedding as many women, usually prostitutes, as possible. Most of what comes out of his mouth is coarse, offensive and self-serving.
In 1985, during the earlier days of the AIDS epidemic, he is told he's HIV positive. The diagnosis comes as a shock on several fronts. Not only did Woodroof, then 35, feel invulnerable, but he regarded the disease as something relegated to homosexual men. He's given 30 days to live and he'll be damned if he'll take that lying down. He sneaks AZT - then the only anti-viral medication available - from a hospital doing a medical trial, but finds it only makes his condition worse. (Though ingesting large amounts of cocaine, amphetamines and liquor along with it as he does certainly can't help.)
Woodroof may be crass and ignorant, but he's no dummy. He researches the disease and then goes into overdrive. He crosses the border into Mexico and tracks down alternative treatments on the black market. In short order, he's smuggling these meds into the USA. Soon he's at the helm of a thriving business, called a "buyers club." The club requires that HIV-positive patients pay monthly dues for access to the treatments, sidestepping federal regulations. Woodroof poses a challenge to the established medical community and a problem for the feds who seek to shut him down.
What began as a selfish concern - born of his frustration with the ineffectiveness of AZT - thrusts Woodroof into the role of a crusader. The energy he once put into carousing he throws into his cause. He becomes an expert on drug trials, anti-viral medications, FDA regulations, court decisions and patents.
It helps that Woodroof's good-old-boy pals have turned against him, calling him the same epithets he used to toss around freely, and helping to sensitize him to what many people with AIDS had to endure.
McConaughey is not the only actor to pull off a stupendous transformation.
Jared Leto's turn as the drug-addicted transsexual Rayon is also terrific. Leto brings this sweet and wounded character to vivid life. A key scene in a grocery store with the two men shows how far cowboy Ron has come and strikes an important emotional note.
In contrast to McConaughey and Leto, Jennifer Garner's role as a sympathetic doctor feels under-written and lackluster.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee handles the difficult subject matter deftly, heightening its gritty sense of reality with the use of a hand-held camera. Writers Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack have chosen an intriguing anti-hero and refrain from sentimentalizing him. They also infuse the serious subject with welcome sardonic wit.
McConaughey plays Woodroof unapologetically, without softening his edges. His extreme bigotry is startling, but, given his circumstances, his metamorphosis into a decent human being feels authentic.
Through its detailed depiction of the lead character and McConaughey's outstanding portrayal, Dallas Buyers Club enlightens compellingly without sermonizing.