Dallas Buyers Club

As a randy homophobe who becomes an AIDS activist, Matthew McConaughey is brilliant.

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club.

Matthew McConaughey, right, and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club.

Courtesy of Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features

The opening images of Dallas Buyers Club have a raw, primitive vitality: A man and two women are having sweaty sex in a stall-like enclosure next to a ring where a rodeo is in progress. As the man grinds and grunts away, he can see through the slats in the door as a rider is first thrown from, then gored by, a bull. The parallelism isn’t subtle: On both sides of the gate, we sense, there is a man risking mortal peril. Dallas Buyers Club, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria) and starring Matthew McConaughey as a hard-living Texan electrician who contracts HIV in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, often works broad like that. This is a movie that traffics in deep hindbrain emotions: fear and rage and lust and, above all, the pure animal drive to go on living.

But Dallas Buyers Club, which was scripted by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, feels right just as it is—it wouldn’t make sense for the study of a character as outsized and rough-edged as Ron Woodroof to be anything smaller or more restrained. The real-life Woodroof died in 1992 after living much longer with the virus than his doctors had believed possible. After a round of treatment with the early, highly toxic AIDS drug AZT left Woodroof at death’s door, he nursed himself back to (relative) health with a cocktail of vitamins, supplements, and still-unapproved antiviral drugs obtained from around the world, some via the black market. With the help of a doctor and other patients, Woodroof eventually started a “buyers club” out of his Oak Lawn, Texas, apartment, offering $400-a-month pharmaceutical packages to HIV-positive people who had either been made sicker by AZT or simply couldn’t afford it.

As played by McConaughey, Ron is an entrepreneur first and an activist second—his empathy for his fellow man, particularly his gay fellow man, doesn’t start to surface until well into the second half of the film. When we first meet him, Ron is an unreconstructed rascal, a part-time rodeo rider who enjoys his whiskey, his women (several at once if possible), and, when payday rolls around, his weed and cocaine. His first reaction after he’s diagnosed with full-blown AIDS and given 30 days to live is to insist that the hospital must have mixed up his blood sample with “some daisy-puller’s,” then head home for a daylong hookers-and-coke bender. Ron’s deeply ingrained fear and hatred of homosexuals—traits we also witness in his uncharming circle of good ol’ boy buddies—prevent him from taking either the diagnosis or the treatment seriously until he’s so ill he’s on the verge of collapse.

The gradual process by which Ron learns to accept first his illness and then his kinship with other AIDS sufferers, gay or straight, provides the second half of the movie with moral suspense: Yes, the buyers-club enterprise is a financial success, but will Ron die before he starts helping people for the right reasons? There’s suspense of the more traditional sort as well, as an ever-sicker Ron, whose fierce will to live has turned him into a kind of gaunt, homophobic Energizer Bunny, drives across the border to smuggle back unapproved drugs from Mexico, passing himself off to border authorities as a cancer-stricken priest. (In this scene and many others, Dallas Buyers Club demonstrates a dry gallows wit.)

Though there’s a hint of romance in the warm relationship between Ron and one of his doctors—played by Jennifer Garner, whose virginal sweetness makes a nice foil to McConaughey’s permanent aura of debauchery—the central relationship in Dallas Buyers Club is between Ron and Rayon (Jared Leto), an HIV-positive trans woman he meets in the hospital and eventually makes his partner in the drug-selling enterprise. Rayon, who’s a composite of several real-life people, is a complex character—tart-tongued and hypercompetent one minute, a drug-addled mess the next—but Leto plays her (or “him,” as the change-averse Ron insists on continuing to call Rayon even after they become friends) with delicacy and humor and nary a hint of “look, I’m a drag queen!” straight-actor self-regard. Late in the film, Ron forces one of his homo-hating buddies to shake Rayon’s hand in a grocery store, and Leto’s barely perceptible smile of triumph is the grace note that makes the scene. It’s a performance that should catapult Leto out of the prison of being remembered forever as My So-Called Life’s teen heartthrob (a career move that, should it happen, I propose we call the Catalanopult.)

As for McConaughey, he’s so fine in this role it’s hard to shake a sense that he’s been prepping for it his whole career. Watching his character waste away onscreen—McConaughey lost 30 pounds for the part, and on his lanky frame it looks like much more—we experience the usually buff actor as alarmingly frail, which only makes his character’s dogged determination to survive (and, eventually, to help others do the same) that much harder, and more powerful, to witness.

The rowdy, drink-life-to-the-dregs philosophy of Ron Woodroof contains more than a little of the DNA of McConaughey’s Magic Mike character, a large-living strip-club owner named, providentially enough, Dallas. And both characters have clear genetic links to Wooderson, the unapologetic jailbait-chasing libertine in Dazed and Confused who so memorably told his teen acolytes to “just keep livin’.” You could lament McConaughey’s “typecasting” as a laconic Texas party animal—or you could rejoice that there’s an actor out there that can play that type so richly that it transcends mere type-ness. Like Robert Mitchum (to whom he’s been persuasively compared), McConaughey isn’t an actor we value for his plasticity from role to role, but for the special aura he brings with him into every film: a dangerous mix of friendliness and menace, seduction and threat (all with an undertone of wry humor that wasn’t part of Mitchum’s stock in trade). Whatever you do next, Matthew McConaughey, just keep livin’.