In theaters Friday, November 1
3 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
It starts with a man having sweaty, anonymous sex at a rodeo.
It ends with that man at a rodeo trying to outlast a certain death sentence.
During the space between, Ron Woodroof — as played by Matthew McConaughey in a career-defining performance — shows a grittiness that’s moving and unforgettable.
A mere fainting spell lands him in a Texas hospital in 1985. The diagnosis is a jaw-dropper: HIV positive. A red-blooded, blue-collared electrician, he’s aghast and disgusted upon hearing the news. The doctors (who include Jennifer Garner) give him 30 days to live and advise comfortable rest. Ron won’t hear of it. (“I will die with my boots on,” he growls.)
Determined to prolong his life by any means necessary, he devises a plan: Head South of the border and get his hands on non-FDA-approved drugs. An act of desperation soon turns into a full-scale business: Teaming up with a wily transgendered patient Rayon (Jared Leto, incredible after a six-year film hiatus), Ron runs the Dallas Buyers Club to distribute black-market drugs to the sick.
But wait. This true story is no melodramatic probe into an ailing cowboy’s soul. Not once does McConaughey look to the sky and ask why him or cry himself to sleep as the clock ticks on his nightstand. In fact, though the actor’s startling 40-plus-pound weight drop has been chronicled ad nauseam, audiences will not see him wither away into a shell. Instead, with hallowed cheekbones and a gaunt frame, the actor uses his charming drawl to lure in skeptical international doctors, needy customers and women. (That said, his cozy relationship with Garner — as earnest as ever — is the one murky plotline. Are doctors supposed to be going out to dinner with patients?)
Ron’s snappy partnership with Leto humanizes all the medical jargon. An unlikely ally in Ron’s fight against AIDS, the effeminate Rayon is able to bring out his sensitive side during a trip to the supermarket and shows his street-smart savvy in the successful Club. (And in one of the film’s looser moments, Ron goes berserk when he sees that Rayon has plastered photos of his face on the walls in their office). Ultimately, it’s Leto — a future Oscar nominee, along with shoo-in McConaughey — who shoulders the emotional heavy lifting here.
But not too much: After all, there’s no time for sentimentality when someone is busy taking the bull by the horns.