A flashback to the worst days of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when death rates were at their highest and hopes were at their lowest, and biopic of a true drugstore cowboy, Dallas Buyers Club boasts the latest in a string of course-correcting performances by Matthew McConaughey, it’s certified Oscar bait.
McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, an electrician and hard-partying urban cowboy whose fast-living catches up with him when he’s diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. Woodroof is given 30 days to live, but a stubborn man to his very core, he refuses to just lay down and die.
Woodruff starts investigating the disease and its treatments (of which there were few at the time) with the same enthusiasm he once had for doing drugs and banging buckle bunnies. Unable to participate in local drug trials for the controversial AZT, he does an end run around a well-meaning doctor (Jennifer Garner) and buys them from an orderly; the drug’s toxicity puts him back in the hospital, where he meets Rayon (Jared Leto in a his best performance in years), a transgendered AIDS patient and unlikely friend whom Woodroof grudgingly comes to respect.
Before long, Woodroof is treating himself with his own cocktail of drugs, vitamins, and supplements — none of them FDA approved — obtained from a disgraced physician in Mexico (Griffin Dunne), living months beyond his original death sentence. With nothing to lose, he and Rayon — one of the most intriguing mismatched duos to ever hit the screen — begin selling the meds to others who have the disease, drawing the attention of the FDA, DEA, and IRS. True to his outlaw nature, the more the crack down on him, the more determined he becomes.
Much has been made of McConaughey’s transformation for the role — he lost somewhere between 40 and 50 pounds, and his hollow-eyed gauntness is often shocking to behold — almost to the point that it overshadows his complex performance, one that runs the gamut from swaggering self-confidence to fearful desperation. Nevertheless, Leto often steals the spotlight from him in an equally chameleon-like and fearless performance.
Like most biopics, Dallas Buyers Club plays fast and loose with the details for the sake of drama: Leto and Garner’s characters are wholly fictional, and many who knew Woodroof suggest he wasn’t as homophobic as his onscreen counterpart. They also play up Woodroof’s Robin Hood-esque legend, but fortunately neither McConaughey nor Valleé overplay their respective hands. Both men maintain Woodroof’s stubborn core, downplaying the ersatz moral enlightenment and keeping the spotlight on the desperation that drove him and so many others. In the process, it generates an amount of empathy and compassion that is rarely seen on film.