Matthew McConaughey lost so much weight to play Ron Woodroof in the harrowing “Dallas Buyers Club,” it's actually scary to see the toll he inflicted on his own body. He's barely recognizable at times.
The result, though, is a deeply moving dose of realism in telling the true story of Woodroof, a good ol' boy electrician and rodeo bull rider from Texas who suddenly learns in 1985 that he is HIV-positive.
Ron is a hard-headed, hot-tempered, fast-living cowboy full of rebellion and prejudice. His response to diagnosis (he's told he has about 30 days to live) is angry denial, since he sees AIDS as a disease for “faggots.” But as he educates himself on the disease, he learns his hard drinking, drug use and casual unprotected sex made him a prime candidate for becoming infected.
The movie is a pointed indictment of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the medical establishment for their slow response to the AIDS crisis. Woodroof learns that AZT seems to be the only drug effective in prolonging life, but it's in clinical trials and unavailable to most — at any price.
His search for help takes him south of the border. Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who lost his license in the U.S. over his approach to treating AIDS, educates Ron about the toxicity of AZT and the value of building up the immune system with vitamins, unprocessed diet and other serums.
He also supplies Woodroof with massive quantities of the stuff. Woodroof sees a way to turn a buck and take care of himself at the same time. Smuggling drugs from Mexico, Japan, China and Israel (sometimes disguised as a priest), he finds a way around the FDA and the doctors. By forming a buyers club (dues $400 a month), he gives away to members the AZT and substances yet unrecognized by the U.S., thus avoiding selling drugs.
His buyers club becomes a model for similar clubs in other parts of the country to fight the pandemic.
To drum up a clientele, Woodroof forms an unlikely partnership with Rayon (Jared Leto), a drug-using transvestite who can access the gay community. Through their years of working together, you watch Ron's prejudices melt from refusing to touch a gay man to caring deeply about Rayon.
Leto equals McConaughey's electric performance, making Rayon a complex and sympathetic character. A scene between Rayon and his banker father, to whom he turns for help in a real moment of desperation, crackles with emotional charge.
Also good: Denis O'Hare as the doctor who diagnoses Woodroof and then becomes his nemesis, insisting he follow medical protocol; and Michael O'Neill as the FDA enforcer who comes down hard on Woodroof's operation. Jennifer Garner gives the movie's bureaucratic world a compassionate face as a doctoring partner of O'Hare's character, caught between the rules and the reality of a life-and-death situation for people she's come to care about.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee (“The Young Victoria”) fast-cuts through time and lets you fill in the blanks, rather than spelling things out. But the story line is clear enough, and his method means he can squeeze seven odds-beating years of Woodroof's life into less than two hours.
McConaughey and Leto are mesmerizing in Oscar-caliber performances as unconventional heroes. The movie chronicles a dark chapter in recent American social and cultural history with attention to detail. It's a moving story rooted in character, steeped in tough love.
* * * * *
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
Quality: Three and a half stars (out of four)
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Griffin Dunne
Rating: R for pervasive language, strong sexual content, nudity, drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Theaters: Oakview, Majestic, Bluffs 17