A hard-hitting look at the terror-filled, chaotic early days of the AIDS epidemic, the gritty "Dallas Buyers Club" focuses on the true story of unlikely activist Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), a hard-partying Texan who was given 30 days to live but wound up living seven more years.
The film rips your heart out, makes you wince and gets you mad. The year is 1985, and AIDS is a death sentence. Woodruff is a wild redneck, somewhat shady and not likable. He is diagnosed with HIV, stunned that he would get it. Given strong dosages of AZT, he's on death's door when he finds out about drugs in Mexico that are not illegal, only not approved by the FDA.
Thus begins his journey as a wheeler-dealer crusader, setting up a buyer's club to help out fellow sufferers, and take on the slow-to-respond government and profit-minded drug companies.
Woodruff's abrasive, tempestuous personality doesn't help with doctors and officials, but he's able to build a support system through an afflicted transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto) and Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). His zealous efforts saved people, bought him more time and changed medical thinking.
The lead character and his eventual sidekick are true "characters," roles that could have been played way over-the-top, but McConaughey and Leto bring unexpected humanity to these guys fighting for their lives.
In career-best performances, they are almost unrecognizable in their roles as the brash Woodruff and doomed Rayon.
McConaughey brings his swagger, unmistakable drawl, and cowboy roots to the part, but physically transformed himself into an emaciated, weak wreck that finds purpose in becoming a health advocate. Womanizing Woodruff's drink-and-drug dependency led to his downfall, but he wised up for survival. His approach though, is much like a snake-oil salesman, and his how he evolves into an educated expert, rattling off facts and figures like the Surgeon General, is one of the script's better aspects.
Leto, who doesn't act much these days now that his band Mission to Mars takes up most of his time, surprises in several ways, and not just by dressing as a woman. His troubled Rayon, a drug addict suffering a world of hurt, isn't an object of pity, yet sad nonetheless.
Garner is solid as the rigid doctor who bends when she sees the need for change.
Director Jean-Mark Valley matter-of-factly, and often unsentimentally, presents the harsh reality -- no sugar-coating it or softening the characters. He has immersed his story in authenticity, as the performers have.
What Doesn't Work
The first part, setting up Woodruff's scuzziness, is unapologetically sleazy. His homophobic nature is brought out in vicious tirades. You are warned. This is a far cry from McConaughey's macho man in romantic comedies, so those expecting his typical fare will be rather shocked.
The movie's got a raw and rough-around-the-edges quality to it, which works for the story, but isn't flawless.
Yet, this is a story at first you don't think you will connect to, but compassion eventually wins out.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O'Hare
Director: Jean-Mark Vallee
Rated: R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use