Matthew McConaughey just keeps getting better and better, turning in performances — in such films as Mud and Killer Joe — that are layered and powerful while portraying characters who are resolutely of a particular time and place. But he might find it hard to top himself after Dallas Buyers Club, the flawed but moving drama based on a true story from the ’80s about a North Texas man battling both AIDS and the government.
McConaughey is Ron Woodroof, an electrician, amateur rodeo rider and Dallas ladies’ man whose love-’em-and-leave-’em lifestyle with just about every woman in town leaves him with AIDS and not long to live. At first, the intensely homophobic Woodroof can’t accept the diagnosis and, once he does, he refuses to believe that the government will only allow him to take AZT, the sole FDA-approved drug at the time but one that doesn’t help him at all.
In a fit of desperation tinged with entrepreneurial zeal, Woodroof begins clandestinely bringing in other drugs and remedies from Mexico, and selling them to other AIDS patients. With the help of his doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), and cross-dressing Rayon (Jared Leto), a fellow patient from one of his hospital stays, Woodroof sets up the Dallas Buyers Club, one of many such clubs that were springing up around the country at the time.
McConaughey plays Woodroof with just the right amount of both the confidence born from years of having things his way and the vulnerability that must have come with what at the time was a death sentence. The latter is underscored by McConaughey’s dropping some 40 pounds for the role, turning himself into the skeletal embodiment of illness and imminent death.
Similarly, Leto — who shed 30 pounds to play Rayon — transforms himself, and though his performance is eclipsed by McConaughey’s, it’s almost equally affecting.
McConaughey and Leto, both of whom may get Oscar nominations for actor and supporting actor, respectively, are so good that they almost mask the movie’s problems. French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée ( The Young Victoria), working from a script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, telescopes this era of the AIDS crisis into a very viewer-friendly good guys (Woodroof, Rayon) vs. bad guys (FDA, hospital doctors) when the truth probably has more shades of gray.
On top of that, the ’80s Dallas that this movie portrays feels wrong, like some outsider’s dim view of what Dallas must have been like. The ’80s was the era of prime Dallas swagger, of the first-generation J.R. Ewing, the Silicon Prairie, the crash-and-burn savings-and-loan scandal and the swinging Starck Club, all of which would have been the cultural background noise for Woodroof’s life. (Woodroof lived in Oak Lawn, the heart of Dallas’ gay community, so it wasn’t as if he were out in the ’burbs.)
But the Dallas of Dallas Buyers Club, which was shot in Shreveport, feels like a small backwater, a place where every time a cop shows up, it’s the same guy (Steve Zahn).
Still, the simplistic Dallas Buyers Club is worth seeing, if for no other reason than McConaughey’s transformative and touching performance. The only question now is what he does for an encore.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas; opens Nov. 15 at AMC NorthPark, Cinemark West Plano; opens Nov. 22 AMC Parks at Arlington; Cinemark Ridgmar, Fort Worth; Movie Tavern W. 7th; and AMC Grapevine Mills