I’d hate to say that Matthew McConaughey is the only reason to see “Dallas Buyers Club,” or even the best reason, but he’s just about the whole show, and he knows it. That is why we cotton to the guy, isn’t it? That hey-now, hey-now bravado, all the more charming when it appears to be backed up by little of substance. McConaughey seduced moviegoers 20 years ago as the sleazy Wooderson in “Dazed and Confused,” and he kept many of us hooked through the wayward choices and chick-flick junk of the 1990s and 2000s. Lately, of course, he has paid dividends for that loyalty, with fluid, risky, whip-smart performances in films like “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Killer Joe,” and “Mud.” He has seemed to be working up to something big, and a lot of people will think it’s his role here — a Texas good old boy named Ron Woodroof who contracted HIV and became a hero of the alternative-medicine underground in the late 1980s.
Certainly this kind of part announces an actor’s seriousness, if not his Oscar-readiness: a “risky” social issue, a compelling real-life human-interest story, radical weight loss in the interests of drama. McConaughey has always been a bit of a stick insect but his first appearance in “Dallas Buyers Club” is genuinely alarming. Well into his sickness but not yet aware he’s infected, Woodroof is a wraith of a rodeo con man, clothes draping slackly on his skeletal frame, mean little eyes burning behind oversize aviators. He looks like Dennis Weaver crossed with a coat hanger.
As written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, “Dallas Buyers Club” is an inspirational tale that keeps tilting toward programmed Hollywood uplift; only McConaughey and costar Jared Leto — as Rayon, the HIV-infected, drug-addicted drag queen who becomes Woodroof’s unlikely business partner — keep the movie fully honest. They do this mostly by playing to the immediacy of their situations. Told he has a T-cell count of 9 and a month to live, Woodroof responds, “[Expletive] this. There ain’t nuthin’ out there that can kill Ron Woodroof in 30 days.”
In fact, he lived for seven years, because he refused to follow the party line of the US medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies. Initially scoring clinical-trial AZT from a janitor at Dallas Mercy Hospital — they meet out back by the dumpsters — Woodroof is soon making regular round-trips to Mexico, where a friendly medic (Griffin Dunne, whose best line is a cheerful “Who said I was a doctor?”) helps him load up his trunk with vitamins, herbs, and unapproved meds like Peptide-T. Woodroof crosses the US border dressed as a priest or a doctor, and if anyone asks, the pills are for his personal use. It’s not like they’re illegal — merely unapproved by the FDA.
In fact, there were “buyers clubs” selling such life-extending cocktails of medicine to desperate AIDS patients in most major cities during the 1980s; the one in Dallas was just run by a notorious character who happened to be straight. Is that why he got a movie made about him, even if it took two decades to find financing? Based on recent articles by Texas journalists who knew the real Woodroof, he probably wasn’t the homophobic cracker the character starts the movie as, and the kindly Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who progresses from bureaucratic resistance to in-the-trenches solidarity, is a fictional construct. But movies need character arcs and female leads if we’re supposed to pay attention, right?
Here’s what “Dallas Buyers Club” needs and has: McConaughey, Leto, and a sense of rage against a medical-industrial complex that saw AIDS sufferers as lab animals and sources of profit. It’s the slow gathering of Ron Woodroof’s rage — guided by Rayon, an emaciated Beatrice to his redneck Dante — that is the movie’s proper dramatic journey, and the irony is that it only grew stronger as Woodroof grew weaker. By the end of this sincerely calculated, always watchable movie, everything has burned away but the fury, including whatever you may think or have thought about the actor you’re looking at. That’s how good the performance is.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.