Dallas Buyers Club ✮✮✮1/2

Crusader Cowboy

by Glenn Lovell

The unrelievedly downbeat “Dallas Buyers Club” provides Matthew McConaughey with his juiciest role to date, that of a swaggering, womanizing good ol’ boy who, when handed the unlikeliest of death sentences, goes from homophobic hustler, only too happy to cash in on others’ suffering, to selfless AIDS activist. It’s one helluva turn, running the gamut in raw emotions. Peering from beneath his 10-gallow Stetson and aviator shades, the skeletal, sunken-eyed McConaughey, who shed nearly 50 pounds for the role, cons, cajoles, curses, sobs uncontrollably … and taps into new reserves of compassion.

There will be those who’ll want to summon memories of Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia,” with Tom Hanks battling the ravages of the ’80s “plague.” I can see that. Still, such comparisons will carry you only so far. McConaughey’s portDallasrayal, certain to bring the actor his first Oscar nomination, is a whole lot richer ‒ and riskier. Talk about flying without a net …

As good as McConaughey is, he’s ultimately upstaged by Jared Leto (“Thin Red Line,” “Requiem for a Dream”), who, under diaphanous shifts and smudged makeup, plays a frightened-yet-proud transsexual, also suffering from AIDS. Leto can start honing his acceptance speech. He’s that good.

“DBC” is a mostly true story, inspired by a Dallas Morning News profile of the buccaneering Ron Woodroof, a Dallas electrician-rodeo rider who, in 1985, tested positive to the HIV virus. His voice dripping with contempt ‒ “I ain’t no faggot, motherfucker!” he tells a doctor ‒ Woodroof can’t understand how a Texas shit-kicker could contract what was then thought of as the Rock Hudson disease. The explanation: unprotected straight sex with a heroin user. Determined to beat the odds ‒ the doctors give him a month ‒ Woodroof attempts to elbow his way to the front of AZT test trials. When this doesn’t work, he bribes an orderly for the drug and begins making trips to Mexico, where he learns about vitamin cocktails that have far fewer debilitating side effects than the controversial AZT.

Soon, Woodroof is running unapproved drugs and has set up a buyers club that circumvents FDA regulations by giving drugs away free ‒ for a $400 monthly membership fee. He’s motivated as much by greed as a strong survival instinct. That is, until he becomes business partners with the sassy, street-smart Rayon (Leto). Rayon is Ron’s conduit into the gay community.

In tracking Woodroof’s trajectory from shotgun-toting redneck to Jeffrey Wigand-like whistle-blower, Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack draw a steady bead on the unholy alliance between physicians and pharmaceutical companies. Also caught in their crosshairs are an alphabet soup of government agencies, starting with the FDA and including the DEA and IRS. Likened to a common drug-dealer, Woodroof waves his anti-AZT flyers and fires back at an FDA official: “You’re the drug dealer! You’re afraid we’ll find an alternative without you.”

“Dallas Buyers Club” is by no means a perfect film. In places it feels like a train of loosely coupled vignettes, some cathartic, some obvious and self-serving, like Woodroof’s afternoon sex with a female HIV carrier and the recurring rodeo clown, i.e. the Face of Death. Among the unforgettable moments: the now-stigmatized Woodroof’s reception at his old watering hole, a supermarket encounter with a fair-weather friend, and Rayon’s meeting with his estranged father. For the latter, Rayon reverts to his Raymond persona, slicking his hair back, donning a tatty dark business suit. The masquerade is as heartrending as it is Halloween garish.

Rounding out the cast are Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare as Dallas doctors on opposite sides of the AZT debate, Steve Zahn as Woodroof’s cop buddy, and Griffin Dunne as a disaffected physician who, from his seedy Mexican clinic, doles out vitamins to desperate AIDS patients. Garner gives a one-note performance as the sympathetic Dr. Saks, who eventually takes up Woodroof’s cause. The hurt reaction shots will get you only so far.

Lovell, longtime movie critic for the San Jose Mercury News, teaches film studies at De Anza College in Northern California. He has written about film for Variety, the L.A. Times and, most recently, the Boston Globe.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB ✮✮✮1/2 With Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; scripted by Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack. 117 min. Rated R (for liberal profanity, nudity)

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