In Jean-Marc Vallée’s engrossing Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey (a.k.a. Mr. Reliable) plays Ron Woodroof, a Dallas electrician with an affinity for the rodeo, booze, cocaine, and threesomes. Off hours, he hangs with his fellow die-hard Texan pals, boasting of their manly conquests and maligning anything that vaguely resembles homosexual activity. Since it’s 1985 and AIDS is still considered a “gay disease,” when a hospitalized Ron is told by Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) that he’s HIV positive with 30 days to live, the medical team promptly receives a profanity-laden earful. Convinced that the hospital has mixed up his blood sample, Ron tells his best friend T.J. (Kevin Rankin) about the misunderstanding, who then quickly spreads the news to their crew, leading to the assumption that Ron must be gay.
The resulting excommunication from his circle serves as fertile ground for personal transformation, an isolation that grows unexpectedly interesting with Ron’s inquisitive research into both how he could have become infected and his options. Back to the wall, the previously ignorant Ron suddenly rises to his potential as an intelligent man and mixed with the Lone Star personality that he’s stubborn to cast aside, the internal struggle makes for a fascinating journey.
Testing Ron’s progress early and often is Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite prostitute whom he begrudgingly meets on one of his many unintentional trips back to the emergency room. Following a voyage to Mexico where he obtains unapproved vitamins and serum from license-stripped Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), Ron returns in need of moving the product and again crosses paths with fellow AIDS patient. Instantly likable in his first scene, Leto really sparkles when Rayon and Ron become business partners in the titular membership group, in which a flat monthly fee grants access to as much medicine the particular patient needs. Part of Ron’s crusade against the drug AZT, which is both too slow to hit the market and, unacknowledged by an aware FDA, toxic to patients with extremely weak immune systems, his professional and increasingly personal interactions with Rayon are a consistent joy, especially as the former’s homophobic wall begins to crumble.
Key to Dallas Buyers Club working are the much-publicized physical transformations of its two stars, and though the emaciation of McConaughey and Leto provide a steady visual power, each amplifies that effect through their respective masterful performances. About the only one lagging behind is Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks, Dr. Sevard’s second-in-command. While excellent on Alias and in roles that demand one central trait (13 Going On 30; Juno), here Garner feels out of place in serious moments and likewise off when the mood lightens. As is the case with some cringe-worthy special effects that “allow” Ron to travel the globe in search of medicine, however, her awkward presence is more of a momentary flaw and has little impact on the overall product. Ron’s story, especially when it overlaps with Rayon, is too powerful and thoughtfully presented for such transgressions to get in the way.
Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use.