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Dallas Buyers Club is an observant character study that’s too honest to be inspirational. Set in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, it is about how a man’s stubborn nature forces him to be a reluctant champion of public health. The early days of HIV and AIDS were fraught with men and women who desperately needed medicine, so they fought against the FDA’s maddening bureaucracy.  There are similarities between Dallas Buyers Club and the outstanding documentary How to Survive a Plague, except in this case Matthew McConaughey’s considerable reserves of charisma anchor the melodrama. His recent renaissance is one of the best things about the movies in the past couple years, and this might be his best performance to date.

McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a hard-living electrician and cowboy. When we first meet him, he’s fucking two women in the stables of a rodeo. He gets sick shortly afterward, and he chalks that up to all the booze and blow he shoves into his body. But then he finds himself in the hospital and and patient doctors (Jennifer Garner and Dennis O’Hare) tells him he has HIV. He denies it at first – he’s a good ol’Texas boy, not a homosexual – and tells them to fuck off after they give him thirty days to live.

Once he understands his dire situation, a remarkable thing happens: he educates himself as best he can. The only AIDS drug is AZT, and when it proves to be toxic, Ron looks for alternative medicine elsewhere. This takes him to Mexico, where he finds an unethical doctor (the inestimable Griffin Dunne), and they start an underground drug market for Dallas’ suffering gay population. Ron attracts the attention of Rayon (Jared Leto), a gaunt gay addict who eventually becomes his partner. They make money hand over fist – their business is no charity – and of course this attracts the attention of the FDA, who is in cahoots with Big Pharma.

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The script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack is compelling because it never softens Woodroof. Even when he invariably grows compassion for Rayon and the others, epithets are never far from his lips and he shows his affection through tough love. McConaughey’s character is not unlike the creep he played in Dazed and Confused – he oozes confidence even when it’s not exactly deserved – and he’s sympathetic since he seems so ferociously, unsparingly human. There are moments where he rages against his homophobic friends and others where he flirts with Jennifer Garner’s Dr. Eve Saks; what unites them is how the trappings of blue-collar Texas sits alongside a natural intelligence. Ron’s changes are subtle, and the thoughtful script never forces a big epiphany.

Like many other biopics – Gus Van Sant’s Milk chief among them – the script supply Ron with several friends, foils, and enemies. They give Ron with one obstacle after another, and he rises to the challenge in compelling, counter-intuitive ways. There is a breezy montage where he travels to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East in search of doctors who will sell him drugs. Still, director Jean-Marc Vallée finds his emotional core in Rayon, a frail thing who initially dodges Ron’s bigotry by sharing vices with him. Leto deserves praise for adding complexity for a fairly one-dimensional character (like McConaughey, his physical transformation is starling since they look downright unhealthy). His big emotional moment is brief, yet has an impact since his big line stark and desperate.

Towards the end of Dallas Buyers Club, Ron becomes an unlikely advocate for the afflicted. He fights for efficacy and humanity when the FDA’s approach to research cannot fight against the disease fast enough. Vallée captures that frustration well – Saks grows from a by-the-numbers doctor into someone who’d rather fight for medicine that works – and the strong characters give a satisfying context for a time where so much of the disease was unknown. Still, the direction is almost stand-offish, as if Vallée fastidiously avoids sentiment (his only concession is a high-pitched screech that occcurs whenever the nastiest symptoms consume Ron’s mind). Dallas Buyers Club has pure intentions, although it would be more cathartic with a few minor tweaks. My only hope is that those who love McConaughey’s performance then seek out How to Survive a Plague, which has less character development and yet many more personal triumphs.

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