Dallas Buyers Club (R) (117 min.) – Dropping 50 pounds, shrinking his virile physique, is not only right for Matthew McConaughey's portrayal of an AIDS sufferer but proves more than any previous role what a movie star he is. The frailer this character gets the fiercer McConaughey's persona barges through; a drawl turning snake oil into syrup, with eyes impaling our attention. Since he can't rely upon swagger or sex appeal, McConaughey taps into something he seldom gets credit for possessing: genuine acting talent.
Dallas Buyers Club is the fact-based story of Ron Woodroof, an electrician and rodeo rogue with a libido the size of Texas, stoked by whiskey and cocaine. It's 1985 and Rock Hudson's death is bringing AIDS to public attention, none of it sympathetic among Ron's homophobic circle of friends. Then a work accident sends Ron to the hospital where a routine blood test reveals he's HIV positive. The doctor gives him 30 days to live.
Refusing to believe this diagnosis — he's 100 percent straight and bulletproof, after all — Ron binges until he drops, returning to the hospital where his condition is deemed too progressed to join an AZT treatment test group. That leads to stolen samples and eventually to Mexico where an expatriate doctor (Griffin Dunne) is seeing positive results from "cocktails" of medicines, minerals and vitamins the FDA won't approve.
Not only does Ron see a way to prolong his life but also a way to turn a profit, smuggling cocktail ingredients across the border, selling them to HIV and AIDS patients. There's no mercy in Ron's game, only the mercenary. He can't stand gay people but their money's green. Skirting federal law, he creates a club where for $400 per month members receive whatever medications they need for no charge.
McConaughey's strongest acting suits are in play: his slyness for scenes of dodging scrutiny from the FBI and hospitals beholden to Big Pharma, his rascally charm for coercing help from a doctor (Jennifer Garner, miscast in an underwritten role), and defiance that isn't overly righteous.
The movie reaches another level entirely when McConaughey's dedication is paired with Jared Leto's equally astonishing physical transformation into a transgendered HIV patient named Rayon. Initially used as comic relief and later a tragic heroine, Rayon is a bracing character Leto invests with uncanny feminine sensibilities. She makes Ron want to be a better man, and that conflict — what the change entails and especially who's inspiring it — leads to McConaughey's subtly vulnerable moments.
Dallas Buyers Club surrounds these two unconventional roles and performances with fairly standard filmmaking, as director Jean-Marc Vallee dutifully progresses from one obvious scene to the next. Solid work but unspectacular, perhaps figuring the boldness of his characters' words and actions can be artistic enough. And it is, in the hands of a temporarily reformed sex symbol and his unexpected leading lady. B+ (Tampa Theatre)
Steve Persall, Times movie critic