“Dallas Buyers Club,” a dramatized biography of the 1980s’ unlikeliest AIDS activist, grabs the bull by the horns in the first shots. Gay-hatin’, bronc-ridin’ Texas good ol’ boy Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is in a rodeo arena cattle stall, consorting with a pair of willing women while in the ring a cowboy is being tossed and gored by his bull.
It’s a sequence of visceral animal power, and the key to Woodroof’s ornery character. When he’s diagnosed with AIDS, he says the hospital must have mixed up his file with “some daisy puller’s.” When his homophobic buddies shun him after learning of his illness, he literally spits at them. Relentlessly promiscuous, druggy and short-tempered, he is not an easy guy to like. But he’s not going down without a fight.
This is the performance of McConaughey’s newly resurgent career. It’s not just the showy physical transformation he pulled off, losing 50 pounds to play the emaciated Woodroof. The key to his enjoyably unhinged work here is the delicate balance he maintains between Woodroof’s desperation and his greed, anarchic humor and nerve, anger and empathy. There’s not another actor working today who could play this bigoted, admirable S.O.B. so well. He refuses to cut away Woodroof’s sharp edges and fit him into the Hollywood box. Shortly after he hears his diagnosis, there’s a scene of Woodroof intently facing a bank of red lights. We think they’re a church’s votive candles until the camera pulls back to show us he’s in a strip club.
Woodroof, an oilfield electrician and part-time rodeo cowboy, got sick in 1985. He rejected his doctors’ diagnosis that he would be dead in a month, and refused to become a guinea pig in the FDA’s slow and cautious treatment trials. After a self-guided crash course in alternative therapies, Woodroof bought unapproved but effective vitamins, supplements and antivirals in Mexico.
Because he saw money to be made, Woodroof set up an underground “buyers club” in a cheesy motel, selling HIV-positive people his experimental drug cocktail for $400 a month. As his international import missions became more complex, he began impersonating priests and physicians at U.S. border checkpoints. His black-market approach earned the wrath of the feds, the courts, the medical establishment and big pharmaceutical companies. He also won the scorn of some gay activists because his aim was making money, not remaking health policy. Still, many consider his venture a key development in the history of combatting AIDS.
Woodroof’s illness didn’t magically change his feelings toward gays. In his hospital ward he meets and instinctively loathes a frail transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto in the film’s second dazzling performance). Later, Woodroof hires Rayon as his liaison to the gay community and only very gradually warms to her.
Rayon is crucial to his business success, but irritates him by painting the motel room a gaudy shade of red — or, as Rayon calls it, “Cranberry Mocha!” There’s a funny scene of the ever-randy Woodroof, who papers his office with cutout pictures from girlie mags, realizing that he’s been ogling a photo of Rayon’s boy-crush, soft-featured glam rocker Marc Bolan.
Over time, the friendship blossoms into a grudging affection for his cross-dressing business partner. There’s a scene in a supermarket where one of Woodroof’s old friends ridicules Rayon and Ron starts a clumsy, scuffling fight with him. Leto smiles a sweetly charming Mona Lisa smile that lights up the screen. It’s that tension between rowdy aggression and compassion that gives “Dallas Buyers Club” its special appeal. By showing us a roughneck battling like hell against death, it paradoxically reaffirms what it means to be alive.