'Dallas Buyers Club' features remarkable performances by Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto

McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, who is diagnosed with AIDS and begins selling non-FDA approved medications for it through a club.

Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features/AP
'Dallas Buyers Club' stars Matthew McConaughey.

Matthew McConaughey has come a long way. Starting out as little more than a matinee idol mannequin, he has evolved into a first-rate actor who daringly transforms himself from role to role. It’s a great pleasure to witness this spectacle. He validates the idea that talent, or its lack, is not fixed: In the movies, as in life, you can always be surprised.

McConaughey’s latest acting marvel – coming after “Killer Joe,” “Bernie,” “Magic Mike,” and “Mud” – is in “Dallas Buyers Club” as Ron Woodroof, the real-life gadabout Texas electrician and rodeo cowboy who in 1985 was diagnosed with AIDS. Given a month to live, he frantically searches for alternative therapies to prolong his life. In the process, he becomes a kind of inadvertent crusader, establishing a “buyer’s club” to sell non-FDA approved medications to people with AIDS.

The heterosexual, womanizing Ron begins his odyssey at a time when AIDS was thought of as a “gay disease.” Rejected by most of his friends, he finds unexpected new allies in the gay community he used to castigate. He takes on a transgendered business partner, Rayon (an extraordinary Jared Leto) who has also received an AIDS diagnosis, and their tentative, unsentimentalized friendship is the emotional core of this highly emotional movie.

Both McConaughey and Leto dropped a great deal of weight for their roles. (In McConaughey’s case, he lost 50 pounds; his wizened frame is sometimes painful to behold.) This sort of thing could easily have turned into an acting stunt, and I’m not entirely sold on the idea that one must drop (or add – remember De Niro in “Raging Bull”?) pounds to achieve artistic truth. What about just plain old imagination?. But the weight loss is a signifier of how devoted these actors were to their roles.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée and his screenwriters, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, have scrupulously avoided turning Ron’s story into a socially conscious docudrama. For the most part, they succeed, although they don’t always allow for the ways in which Ron’s forays into alternative medicine may have been not only self-serving but medically unsound. As Ron challenges the health establishment, Big Pharma, the FDA, and the FBI, a halo, albeit tarnished, can be seen glowing faintly above his head.

The real halo here belongs to McConaughey. He does justice to Ron’s story and to his own quicksilver talent. Grade: B+ (Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use.)

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