It's ironic and then some that good ol' Texas boy Matthew McConaughey, 43, has found the role of his career playing a hate-spewing redneck in Dallas Buyers Club. It's the true story of Dallas pussy-hound Ron Woodroof, a rabid gay-basher who wound up helping in the fight against the AIDS virus, mostly to save his own rodeo-cowboy ass.
"You hear Rock Hudson was a cocksucker?" a revolted Ron asks his buddies when the rugged Hollywood star succumbs to complications from AIDS in 1985. Suddenly, the "gay disease" hits home, especially for Ron, who is diagnosed with HIV from sex with a female druggie. No matter. His pals paint the words "faggot blood" on the side of his house and run the other way. So does the medical profession. Dr. Sevard (Denis O'Hare) at Dallas Mercy gives Ron 30 days to live. Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner, a radiant actress of rare spirit and sensitivity) offers a chance in the form of an AZT trial. But a chance isn't good enough for Ron, whose body is wasting away (McConaughey dropped 38 pounds for the role). He steals AZT, and when that doesn't work he travels to Mexico to try experimental drugs administered by Dr. Vass (a terrific Griffin Dunne).
Ron feels alone. The FDA drags its heels. Big Pharma keeps pushing costly AZT. Gays still make him puke, especially Rayon (Jared Leto), the transsexual druggie he first met at the hospital in Dallas. But Rayon is not to be deterred. Leto gives an award-caliber performance of uncanny skill. He makes sure Rayon never loses her caustic wit and touchingly beleaguered grace. Leto is flat-out perfect.
When Ron figures out a way to jump legal hurdles – he'll form a Dallas Buyers Club that gives away alternative, non-approved medicines but charges a monthly membership fee – it's Rayon who becomes his right hand. Just don't expect to find Ron in big hugs with Rayon and AIDS support groups. Ron is a hardass, but his grudging respect for the gay activists he meets comes through loud, clear and minus the usual Hollywood bullshit.
All credit to the impassioned script from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack that started when Borten first interviewed Ron in 1992. And to Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) for using hand-held cameras to keep Ron's journey burning with ferocity and feeling. The movie, brutally funny and vitally touching as it is, sometimes trips on its ambitions. McConaughey doesn't. Much has been written about his career roll from rom-com to the highs of Mud, Magic Mike, Bernie and Killer Joe. But what McConaughey does here is transformative. Damn, he's good. Ron lived for nearly seven years after his death sentence. McConaughey makes sure we feel his tenacity and triumphs in the treatment of AIDS. His explosive, unerring portrayal defines what makes an actor great, blazing commitment to a character and the range to make every nuance felt.