Bigot Gets Gold Star: "Dallas Buyers Club" a moving dose of fighting AIDS without compromise

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) 
117 min., rated R.

By the misinformed and less liberal-minded, there used to be a major misconception that HIV could only be contracted by homosexuals. In 1985, Dallas, Texas, sweaty, lascivious, hard-drinking electrician Ron Woodruff (played by Matthew McConaughey) thought this, too, as he would join in with his equally bigoted buddies once the news of movie star Rock Hudson being diagnosed with AIDS hit the papers. He frequents rodeos, making bets and then running off with the money. He has unprotected sex with all the women he wants. He fuels his body with whiskey, cigarettes, cocaine, and intravenous drugs. After an electrical accident at work lands him in the hospital, Ron has a blood test, his T-cell count a very low 9 that the doctors are surprised he's still alive and testing positive for the HIV virus. Told he has only thirty days left to live, he denies his death sentence, refuses Dr. Eve Saks' (an earnest Jennifer Garner) advice to attend AIDS support groups, and goes right back to his unhealthy lifestyle. 

An empathetic, enlightening, and unsentimental truth-based journey of one man's personal gain and steps toward tolerance and humanitarianism, "Dallas Buyers Club" is palatable enough for mature wider audiences, but never gets bogged down in holier-than-thou messaging as some mawkish, phony-baloney Hollywood treatment of a dodgy homophobe making a 180-degree turnaround. Ron resists the help from the doctors and goes about treatment his own way. Once Ron passes out in his trailer home and his lungs start bleeding, Ron reassesses the gravity of the situation and does his research. Then he bribes a hospital orderly to slip him prescriptions of AZT, the only drug on the market for HIV patients to still be unapproved by the FDA and in the placebo testing trials. He might be worse off taking the drug, so he travels to an AIDS clinic in Mexico and meets an uncertified doctor (Griffin Dunne), who treats him with a cocktail of proteins and vitamins. From there, Ron starts smuggling drugs across the border and selling them out of a motel. Making a profit by charging a $400 membership fee, hence the Dallas Buyers Club, the determined homophobe decides to target the gay community and reluctantly enlists another HIV patient, drug-addicted transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto). It might be a wily, illegal business, but Ron is finally helping someone other than himself, while showing the medical professionals.

Directed with gritty immediacy and effectively sparing use of piercing sounds by Jean-Marc Vallée (2009's "The Young Victoria") and economically written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack, the film makes no apologies for Ron's seedy, despicable behavior. That's what strips "Dallas Buyers Club" of prefab filmic convention. While this important story uses Ron Woodruff as its unconventional subject, the ins and outs of the Dallas Buyers Club are sometimes lost in shortcuts and jumps in time after Ron's thirty-day sell-by date passes. Also, a scene where Rayon visits his father at work in a suit as Raymond has consequence but feels cut short of its dramatic potential.

Five or so years ago, Matthew McConaughey might have continued taking his shirt off and trying to charm his audiences as a preening romantic leading man for Kate Hudson for the third time. But he takes more risks than any other actor working today. With his winning streak of 2011's "Bernie," 2012's "Magic Mike," "Killer Joe" and "The Paperboy," and this year's "Mud," he has revitalized his career, in what's been coined as a "McConaissance," as an explosively brave, chameleonic character actor with the nuance and range to play another slippery character different from the last. This time, the already-sinewy McConaughey dropped fifty pounds, which is as alarmingly method as when Christian Bale shed sixty-three for 2004's "The Machinist," but, as more than just a gimmicky physical transformation, the gaunt actor really is transformative and fully committed as Ron Woodroof. Early on, he has an emotional breakdown in his car with a gun at his side that stings with an unaffected honesty. Playing a conflicted man who slowly loses his hostility to do something good, McConaughey conversely redeems himself without ever losing the warts. 

On an equally vivid and persuasive level, an unrecognizable Jared Leto loses himself in the androgynous role of Rayon without feeling distractingly actorly or falling into self-conscious awards-season showiness. Layered with a gentle sweetness, wicked tongue and self-respect, he/she feels like a grounded, lived-in person and not just a plot device to guide along Woodruff to his sort-of arc. As expected, Ron is disgusted by Rayon at first, but business partners then become (platonic) friends. Without one false note between McConaughey and Leto, these are both performances worthy of Oscar consideration. It should be mentioned that Garner also excels wonderfully in a more underwritten part as the compassionate but strong-willed Dr. Eve Saks, who's more interested in helping her patients than the pharmaceutical companies, questioning the responsibility of the AZT trials. She could have become an unbelievable love interest for Ron, but he even deceives her.

Almost always and finally, this is McConaughey and Woodruff's show. Played by a movie star who keeps knocking it out of the park in more independent projects, bringing all sorts of interesting dimension to a character next to charisma and that southern drawl, the deeply flawed antihero isn't without humanity. By the looks of it, Woodruff was just a fallible human being who later found diginity and found it in himself to help people he used to disparage. Who knows if he would have done the same had he not been infected with HIV (Ron reminds them all that he's not doing this for charity), but the point is that he did it. "Dallas Buyers Club" is moving without being artificially feel-goody.

Grade: B +