*** (out of four)
The Matthew McConaughey of “Dallas Buyers Club” is not the muscular, Mr. “all right all right all right” of “Magic Mike,” a performance that contained expert and under-appreciated depth beneath the bluster. As real-life activist and AIDS patient Ron Woodroof, McConaughey looks thin. Small. He reportedly lost close to 40 pounds for the role, which isn’t Christian Bale-in-“The Machinist” gaunt, but it’s not far from it.
When the film begins in July 1985, Ron’s contributing next to nothing to society. He’s a minimally employed electrician and part-time rodeo bull rider, running away from lost bets and sleeping with anyone who’s interested. Then, a shock: He tests positive for HIV. Denial becomes devastation as the rider becomes the ridden. But you know what happens when you mess with the bull.
At its core, “Dallas Buyers Club” is a story about shifting priorities and challenging the unchallengeable. Ron, a proud homophobe and racist fond of the six-letter F-word, would be the last person you’d expect to partner with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman also suffering from the virus. Yet results from Ron’s last-ditch effort at prolonging his life—rebelling against a system that only approves use of AZT, which seems to have negative effects—adjust his mission and perspective. McConaughey’s excellent in a performance that doesn’t have a big, quintessential Oscar moment, probably because he’s an actor who never overplays like that. It’s another highlight in a career rejuvenation that’s been a treat to watch.
As a dramatic counterpart to last year’s “How to Survive A Plague,” “Dallas” struggles in trying to hit marks of storytelling, social consciousness and occasionally funny entertainment value. Jennifer Garner plays a doctor slowly beginning to believe Ron’s skepticism of AZT; it’s the sort of subplotty part that may be based in reality but doesn’t feel like it.
Where the film excels is the tension—between bigots and their targets, activists and the FDA, life and death. Something tells me many viewers will respond to Ron’s fight against a government that doesn’t always hinge on common sense.
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