Movie review: Great performances elevate 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) gets a diagnosis and a death sentence in a single hospital visit.

In 1985 Texas, the electrician and rodeo cowboy is informed he is infected with the AIDS virus. "We estimate you have 30 days left to put your affairs in order," a doctor predicts in "Dallas Buyers Club."

Rock Hudson had just announced he had AIDS, and the disease was associated with homosexuals and IV drug users. Woodroof declares he doesn't even know any gay men -- although he uses more profane and vulgar language than that.

'Dallas Buyers Club'

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner.

Rating: R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use.

After a denial laced with drink, drugs and women, he goes to the library to do some research on AIDS and returns to the hospital to buy the drug he read about: AZT. But Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) says that's not possible. It's part of a yearlong study in which participants will either get the medication or a placebo.

"You give dying people sugar pills?" he asks, incredulously, and concludes, "Screw the FDA. I'm gonna be DOA" if he follows the rules.

Ron finds himself in a no-man's land -- no legal drugs, no easy rapport with his old macho friends and none with an AIDS support group. When a stranger tries to hug him, he snaps, "Back the [expletive] off, Tinkerbell."

His salvation comes in Mexico, which also fires his entrepreneurial spirit when he realizes he can load up on unapproved medicines and supplements and smuggle them back into the United States to treat his own illness and, it turns out, others'. With eventual help from transsexual and fellow patient Rayon (Jared Leto) he reaches out into the gay community and starts the buyers club that gives the movie inspired by true events its name.

"Dallas Buyers Club," directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, is anchored by two tremendous performances, with Ms. Garner also providing very able support. Much has been made of the alarming weight loss by Mr. McConaughey and Mr. Leto, but it's their willingness to step -- no, leap -- outside their comfort zones that makes them so remarkable.

Mr. McConaughey has to convincingly change from a homophobic, foul-mouthed, womanizing good ole boy to a man who becomes an expert in matters of business, science and government regulations and who is able to see past sexual orientation. Mother Teresa he's not, insisting at one point, he is not running a charity so members of the buyers club need to pony up their dues.

Mr. Leto, who has been busy as a director and musician with Thirty Seconds to Mars, spends almost all of the movie dressed as a woman. He brings a delicacy and bruised quality to the drug-addicted Rayon, so much so that when he appears in men's clothing, it's a shock. If he doesn't get nominated for a supporting actor Oscar, it will be a shame.

"Dallas Buyers Club" could have used more context for moviegoers who don't remember Ryan White or a time before red ribbons and cocktails of drugs were available to people with AIDS.

Despite the lapses, a few murky scenes that betray the movie's guerrilla pace and budget (just 27 days and $4.7 million) and streamlining when it came to Mr. Woodroof's family and girlfriend, it's still a story of a man who would not take no -- or death in 30 days -- for an answer. Well-behaved women aren't the only ones who rarely make history or the subject of compelling movies.

Mr. Woodroof was not only an outlaw, running from the feds sometimes in disguise, but an outlier who delivered hell raising, hope and longer lives -- including for himself.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:

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