Review: Matthew McConaughey is terrific in the moving historical drama ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

TORONTO – At some point in the future, when people are writing a history of how cinema processed and showcased the way HIV and AIDS affected life in the late 20th century and beyond, “Dallas Buyers Club” will definitely be part of that conversation, and the film seems to occupy a space at both ends of the timeline right now. It deals with the early days, when people still didn’t understand much about it, but it looks at that time with the perspective of right now, allowing them the distance to really get the story right.

It is my sincere wish that we never see Matthew McConaughey star in another shitty romantic comedy again. He is way too interesting for that, and there’s a reason he became a punchline for a few years. It’s not because he’s a bad actor; far from it. It’s because it looked like he decided just to coast and not push himself. You cannot say that about “Dallas Buyers Club,” though. This is a ferocious performance, funny and angry and emotional, and watching it, I felt like it fulfilled all of the promise he has shown over the years and then some. There is nothing held back here, and that laconic cowboy charm of his is put to perfect use. Ron Woodruff was an electrician and a sort of low-level hustler/party boy who loved his drugs almost as much as he loved his sex. In the early sequences in the film, he is blatantly homophobic, a “good ol’ Texas boy,” through and through, and it’s so casual, so much a part of the everyday language he and his buddies use, that when he learns he has HIV, he practically goes crazy and attacks the doctor. He is furious that anyone would accuse him of having something that is supposed to only kill gay people.

I remember those days. I remember the fear and the misinformation and, yes, the rampant hatred that seemed to be totally accepted by the mainstream. I don’t excuse any of the behavior we see in this movie, but I understand that it was something that existed everywhere, and that it was a dark time in terms of the mainstreaming of gay culture. Ron at first rejects the diagnosis, but the more he reads, the more he realizes that he has indeed been given the virus, but beyond that, he also sees how easy it is for people to turn on you over a sickness, over something that is beyond your control.

When he hears about clinical trials for AZT, he wants in, but the more he learns about the way Big Pharma and the FDA work, the less he trusts the entire system. He decides he’s going to treat himself, and he’s not going to let international borders and things like regulation stand in his way. Ron pushes right up against the letter of the law, then past it, and not only does he begin to see a change in himself, he also realizes just how many other people are hungry for the same thing. He knows he can’t just sell people the drugs without risking arrest, so he comes up with a daring plan to start a Buyers Club. People pay membership dues, and that entitles them to all the free drugs in a month that they might need.

McConaghey’s weight loss for the film is certainly startling, but he’s better here than just some silly trick about his weight. He offers up a resoundingly unsentimental portrait of Ron, and the entire movie manages to feel heartfelt and moving without giving in to the easy temptation to get maudlin. Jared Leto, nearly unrecognizable as Rayon, is openly, flaming gay, and the first few encounters he has with Ron do not go well. He tests every ounce of tolerance Ron is trying to build up, and Rayon knows he’s pushing Ron’s buttons, and can’t help himself. It’s a wonderful performance, and Leto modulates it perfectly. Jennifer Garner plays Dr. Eve Saks, and she seems to be the perfect foil for Ron, sympathetic but determined to do things the right way.

The film gets into the politics of how drugs are approved and developed, and it certainly points out some significant moments in the way we treat AIDS paitents now. Working from a strong, lean script by Craig Borten & Melisa Walllack, director Jean-Marc Valee (“The Young Victoria”) does exemplary work. He keeps everything personal. This isn’t a movie where we’re constantly cutting to other parts of the story to set some larger context. And it doesn’t feel issue-driven, the way so many of these films do. It is small-scale. It’s personal. It’s beautiful. It’s moving. It hurts. And, if people are ready to have a long conversation afterwards, it may even heal. You can ask no more from a movie.

“Dallas Buyers Club” opens in the US on November 1, 2013