Matthew McConaughey‘s string of terrific midcareer performances (most recently in “Mud” and “Magic Mike“) reaches a new peak in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Even better, McConaughey is matched here by Jared Leto, returning to the screen after five years away and attaining a career high of his own as a doomed drag queen.
The movie begins in 1985, just a few years into the AIDS plague. Working from a tight script, by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee recounts the true story of Ron Woodroof, a Dallas electrician whose raging heterosexual lifestyle of booze, drugs and unprotected sex suddenly put him in the hospital, where he was told he had contracted HIV and had 30 days to live. McConaughey, who lost more than 30 pounds to play Woodroof at this very low point, is brilliant in balancing his character’s conflicted response to his predicament. Ron is totally straight, so how could he catch a famously gay disease? A hospital doctor (Jennifer Garner) tells him that there’s no cure for what he has and that experimental AZT drug trials would last longer than what’s left of his life. When she says that his only recourse is to join an AIDS support group, Ron explodes: “I’m dying, and you tell me to go get a hug from a bunch of f——?”
But then, back in the hospital after attempting to self-medicate with illicitly obtained AZT pills (he gulps them by the handful and washes them down with beer), Ron finds himself in a room with another HIV victim, a transvestite called Rayon (Leto). He immediately recoils from this flamboyant character, resplendent in lipstick and eye shadow, but Rayon slowly wins him over. Soon they’ve gone into business together, selling illegally acquired AIDS meds at gay bars and making pretty good money at it.
Then Ron gets a tip to drive to Mexico to see a doctor named Vass (Griffin Dunne, wonderful in a deceptively small role), an American whose medical license has been revoked for reasons he’d rather not discuss. But Vass is still a conscientious physician and keeps current with the latest AIDS research. He tells Ron that while the Food and Drug Administration is being scandalously slow in allowing the testing of promising new drugs, some of these are available overseas. Before long, Ron is flying off to Amsterdam, Tel Aviv and Okayama and smuggling back large quantities of meds. The FDA is soon on his case, seeing him as a simple drug dealer, and to evade the agency’s harassment, Ron and Rayon start a “buyers club” for desperate AIDS victims. Membership is $400; medications are “free.”
Vallee keeps the story moving along with great spirit, and McConaughey and Leto are a wonder to behold. Ron is an abrasive character, seeking no sympathy for his deadly affliction and, as a lifelong hustler, looking upon it as just another chance to make some money. McConaughey shows us his slow transformation from intolerance into understanding with painstaking subtlety and without a touch of sentimental overreach. Leto, for his part, plays Rayon as not a simple victim but a man who can’t help being cuttingly funny even as his life dwindles away. The movie’s most striking achievement is that it’s not just another AIDS film designed to break our heart. It’s full of life and energy. And in the end, it breaks our heart anyway.