Dallas Buyers Club is proof that Matthew McConaughey has resurrected his acting career. His ascent started in the 1990s with a standout performance in Dazed and Confused, but he got waylaid over the next decade with a series of wan romantic comedies. Over the last two years, however, McConaughey's choice of roles has improved. Beginning with The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011, he appears to have rededicated himself to his craft, turning in fine and varied performances in Bernie, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, The Paperboy and this year's excellent Mud. And now he's a contender for Oscar nominations due to his work in Dallas Buyers Club.
He portrays gaunt good ol' boy Ron Woodroof, a role for which he supposedly lost 40 pounds. Woodroof is an electrician and Texas rodeo rat we first glimpse in 1985, screwing two women while watching bull-riding through the slats in a fence. A substance-abusing, sexist and homophobic jerk, he is far from an appealing character at the outset.
When an accident on the job knocks him unconscious, Woodroof wakes up in a hospital, where doctors (Jennifer Garner and Denis O'Hare) tell him he is HIV positive. They think he has only a month to live. Woodroof reacts to the diagnosis with anger and denial, but gradually his survival instinct kicks in. He is an uncooperative patient, however, and finds it easier to cadge pilfered drugs from an orderly than follow doctors' orders. In an underwritten role, Garner plays a physician who thinks the AZT dosages used in the hospital's trial are too strong.
Woodroof finds his way to Mexico, where an unlicensed American doctor (Griffin Dunne) fortifies him with a cocktail of vitamins and drugs. Thus begins his transformation from goner to survivor, and from homophobe to rough-edged humanist. Soon he's smuggling the drugs across the border and organizing a "buyers club" to redistribute them to other Texans in need.
Woodroof's transformation is the heart of Dallas Buyers Club, and it is largely unsentimental. His partner in the business is Rayon (Jared Leto), a streetwalking, drug-addicted T-Rex fan who provides Woodroof with an entry into the gay community. Leto's stellar performance is only slightly undercut by the stereotyping of his character, who is transgender.
The film's portrait of the early days of the AIDS crisis is also interesting, especially since the topic has been explored so little in feature films. But for the most part, this is not a movie about the dawn of the epidemic, the transformation of the gay community or a dozen other issues relevant to the period. It is the story of one man's unwillingness to go gently into that good night, and the personal growth he experiences along the way.