Movie Reviews

‘Dallas Buyers Club’: Matthew McConaughey swaggers through the pain | 3 stars

Updated: 2013-11-22T19:24:37Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

Ron Woodroof is a disaster.

He’s a racist, sexist, homophobic loudmouth. An alcoholic. A drug addict. A thief.

But as interpreted by Matthew McConaughey in a terrific performance that showcases his intrinsically weird charisma, Ron becomes a rather noble figure. “Dallas Buyers Club” breaks no new ground, but the AIDS-themed biopic stomps over the old ground quite effectively.

We meet Ron in 1985 as he’s having sex with two ladies in a vacant holding pen during a rodeo. Clearly, he is as single-minded as the bull that is about to buck off the rider Ron just bet too much money on. This appears to be a common pattern for Ron, who scams so he can support his vices, then evades the fallout from his shady behavior.

And then he’s given the startling diagnosis that he has HIV … and a 30-day death sentence. At the time, most people assumed the virus was reserved exclusively for homosexuals.

“There’s nothin’ out there that can kill (expletive) Ron Woodroof in 30 days,” he boasts.

He’s right, thanks to some proactive investigating. Ron learns from his hospital roomie, the transgender Rayon (Jared Leto), that a “miracle drug” called AZT is being tested at the facility. So Ron cuts a deal with a janitor to steal supplies for his own use. AZT was then the most expensive drug ever marketed, costing $10,000 for a month’s supply. But the way it was being tested was to provide half the AIDS patients with the drug and the others a placebo.

“You’re giving dying people sugar pills?” Ron asks a doctor.

But he begins to wonder whether AZT is helping or simply speeding up their demise. An encounter with an expatriate physician in Mexico (Griffin Dunne) convinces him to try a cocktail of vitamins, fatty acids and other unapproved treatments. The FDA intervenes to stop him. Then he begins to skirt the law by offering memberships in the Dallas Buyers Club: $400 a month for all the medicine one needs, thus providing the only hope of survival to people he previously would have loathed.

The uber-Texan McConaughey seems to have completely left behind the frothy Kate Hudson vehicles that typified his 30s, opting for hard-hitting and/or flamboyant character roles in his 40s. He drops dozens of pounds to become a gaunt shell of his “Magic Mike” physique, rivaling only Christian Bale in 2004’s “The Machinist” in the sexy-goes-skeletal sweepstakes.

What’s interesting is McConaughey’s underlying humanity as Ron emerges via his interaction with others he normally couldn’t stomach. His initial repulsion to Rayon is aggravated by the drag queen’s constant flirtation.

“(You’re) handsome in a Texas-white-trash-dumb kind of way,” Rayon says.

These outsiders first form a reluctant business partnership, which turns to mutual respect, then a deep friendship. Sure, a familiar sassy dynamic arises from Leto’s stock Hollywood character, yet it works because of the poignant commitment from both actors.

Other supporting performances in the screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack (inspired by a 1992 Dallas Morning News article) prove less interesting. Jennifer Garner portrays a sympathetic doctor with the kind of bland benevolence found on episodic TV. Steve Zahn plays a cop with a long history of dealing with Ron. This means every time there’s need for police intervention — a bar fight or traffic accident — he magically appears. Who knew Dallas has as few cops as Mayberry?

Montreal native Jean-Marc Valle (who also directed the excellent “The Young Victoria”) keeps the movie visually dynamic through slick camera work and editing, even though it’s set chiefly in hospitals and cheap apartments. Yet he rarely captures the gaudy mid ’80s — the neon color schemes, the baggy wardrobes. It’s an odd omission, considering how the story is so fixed in this specific era.

Valle also battles momentum. “Dallas Buyers Club” never settles into whether it’s a redemptive character study or a rant against pharmaceutical greed and government bureaucracy.

Fortunately, McConaughey bails out his director. Beneath his Stetson and relief-pitcher mustache, the lively actor makes the film’s weaker choices easier to forgive. His journey from party boy to pariah to protector is always captivating.

(At the Barrywoods, Glenwood Arts, Palace, Palazzo and Town Center.)

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