This image released by Focus Features shows Jennifer Garner in a scene from “Dallas Buyers Club.” (AP Photo/Focus Features, Anne Marie Fox)
The best parts of “Dallas Buyers Club” are of Matthew McConaughey, as HIV-positive Texas man Ron Woodroof, bucking like a bull in a Dallas hospital he refuses to let hold him.
Woodroof is a self-declared “goddamn rodeo.” He’s a cowboy hat-wearing, middle finger-flipping trailer park rat who spends his time fornicating, drinking, doing drugs and evading his debtors. Our first image of him (in what he’ll later recall as the moment of his HIV infection), is spied through the panels of a dark rodeo pen while he has sex with a blonde. He’s too messed up to much notice when a large man slides in behind him.
When Woodroof, an electrician, later turns up in the hospital, he’s diagnosed with HIV (this is 1985, early in the AIDS crisis). With a T-cell count of just nine, he’s told that he has 30 days to live. He lashes out that he’s no Rock Hudson. But after a bender of denial, Woodroof turns up, of all places, at a library, to study up on his disease.
Woodroof rages against his fate with unexpected tenacity and smarts: the life force of a low-life hedonist. He quickly zeroes in on drugs available internationally but not approved for use in the U.S. by the Federal Drug Administration. “Dallas Buyers Club” plays out not as a fight against AIDS, but against the bureaucracy of the FDA and the coziness of drug companies with doctors. Denis O’Hare plays a blatantly villainous hospital doctor, with Jennifer Garner as his more sympathetic junior colleague.
Woodruff rapidly enmeshes himself in a grassroots underworld that circumvents the FDA. He begins smuggling in less toxic drugs from Mexico, Japan and Europe. He sets up a so-called “buyers club” with members of other HIV-afflicted Dallas men paying a monthly fee for drugs that prove more effective than the FDA-approved doses of AZT.
Though it may be a story of sickness and death, “Dallas Buyers Club” is about the rebirth of a homophobe. Suddenly an outcast among his heterosexual friends, Woodroof reluctantly warms to a new community — particularly a drug-addicted transsexual named Rayon who becomes his business partner.
Rayon is played by an earnestly committed Jared Leto who nevertheless comes off as a theatrical drag queen cliche. They run the buyers club together out of a cheap motel, the unlikeliest pair of Bonnie and Clyde renegades yet.
Quebec filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee (“The Young Victoria”) directs “Dallas Buyers Club” with a loose naturalism, seedy environs and lively humor that prevents the film from becoming over-sentimentalized. It’s a true story long in the making (screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) based on Woodroof’s remarkable late life.
But what “Dallas Buyers Club” is, ultimately, is the apotheosis of another transformation: McConaughey’s great U-turn. A few years after sinking into rote romantic comedies, “Dallas Buyers Club” tops an astonishing streak for the 43-year-old that has included “Mud,” ”Magic Mike” and “Bernie.”
He lost more than 40 pounds for the role (Leto, too, is startlingly thin), and appears so gaunt as to wipe away any memory of his rosier, more superficial performances. Extreme weight loss, too, can be a superficial ploy, but McConaughey inhabits the clamoring, clawing Woodroof, whose zest for life (which McConaughey has always exuded) flourishes with the meaning of a moral cause.
He stomps down hospital hallways in cowboy boots, a foul-mouthed champion against the system, spouting obscenities in a Texas drawl. In one late scene that could be either Woodroof or McConaughey, he looks in the mirror, and smiles.
“Dallas Buyers Club,” a Focus Features release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use.” Running time: 133 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.