Shedding Tears, Having Fun, Saving Lives

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Dallas Buyers Club.” | FOCUS FEATURES

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Dallas Buyers Club.” | FOCUS FEATURES

BY GARY M. KRAMER | Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), the HIV-positive protagonist of “Dallas Buyers Club,” is a scrawny electrician who works hard and plays harder. In the opening moments, he is seen having sex during a rodeo competition and placing bad bets on cowboys. When the riders fail to last eight seconds, Ron’s creditors chase him. He seeks escape by punching a cop (Steve Zahn) so he will be arrested in order to extricate himself from a bad situation.

That Ron schemes to make fast cash — and skirts the law to keep it — is at the core of “Dallas Buyers Club,” an impressive, comic, and heartfelt film about people with AIDS in the 1980s coordinating the distribution of unapproved medical treatments because pharmaceutical companies and the FDA are moving too slowly.

McConaughey’s performance is remarkable, Oscar-worthy, and certainly Oscar-baiting. The Texas actor, who transformed himself by losing considerable weight to play Ron, relishes his role. He walks around all cocky, strutting about in a cowboy hat and donning a priest’s vestments when undercover transporting drugs across the border.

McConaughey, Leto shine in passionate, at times comic take on desperate ‘80s search for AIDS meds

When Ron is diagnosed with HIV early in the film, he is shocked, especially when his doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner) inform him that he has a T-cell count of only 9 and just 30 days to live. He is also dumbfounded that people think he’s gay. A homophobe who voices crude barbs about Rock Hudson’s sexuality, Ron says that even though he has been handed a death sentence, he isn’t interested in attending support group meetings “to get a hug from a bunch of faggots.”

“Dallas Buyers Club,” is the story of how Ron transforms himself — as well as the lives of many other people living with AIDS. He educates himself on AIDS treatments and gives a hospital janitor money to get his hands on AZT being used in clinical tries there. When he can’t secure more AZT, Ron is directed to go to Mexico, where a crafty doctor (Griffin Dunne), whose license has been revoked, helps him get his hands on medications not allowed in the US.

In fact, Ron suffers some medical setbacks, and during one stay in the hospital, he meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual AIDS patient. The two dislike each other, but form an uneasy friendship that soon turns into a useful business arrangement. Ron secures his medication, and Rayon secures the clients. The pair form the eponymous buyers club, a subscription-based service that dispenses free medication to members who buy in.

“Dallas Buyers Club” makes Ron and Rayon’s story compelling because the film creates a sense of urgency around their situation. Ron becomes increasingly empowered as his life is extended months, even years past his initial 30-day diagnosis. His buyers club efforts, however, soon draw scrutiny from the FDA, the IRS, and others who want to shut down his operation. Ron’s wiliness in extricating himself from a variety of sticky situations is a bit part of the charm of McConaughey’s performance.

When Rayon and Ron run into an old friend of Ron’s who has avoided him since he disclosed his HIV status, the man makes a disparaging remark about Rayon. When Ron strong-arms him into shaking Rayon’s hand, we see how the heart of a one-time homophobe has become less hateful.

Rayon humanizes not just Ron but “Dallas Buyers Club” as well. The character, a drug addict, could easily have been a caricature, but Rayon instead proves to be a compelling co-conspirator. The love-hate relationship between Rayon and Ron brings out the best — and worst — in both of them.

Less successful is the relationship between Ron and Dr. Eve Saks (Garner), which moves from simple flirting to the doctor’s willing and unwilling support of Ron’s drug import efforts. Garner is disappointingly wooden in her role, making it the film’s greatest weakness.

McConaughey, on his own is fantastic; it is great fun to watch him chasing AZT with a beer and a line of coke and, also, fighting back passionately against the FDA representative trying to shutter the operation. Leto provides memorable support in his role, looking far better in a dress than in an ill-fitting suit.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB | Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée | Focus Features | Opens Nov. 1 | AMC Loews Village 7 | 66 Third Ave. at 11th St. | AMC Loews Lincoln Square, 1998 Broadway at 68th St. | | Chelsea Cinemas, 260 W. 23rd St. |