For proof that Matthew McConaughey has completed his two-year metamorphosis into a serious actor, look no further than his bared, unrecognizable torso in Dallas Buyers Club. Those mighty abs, once a livelihood and a point of professional pride, have been melted away, leaving in their absence a thin layer of skin over bones. Yes, McConaughey has gone Machinist gaunt, shedding his famous beach body for his art. But his performance isn’t an Oscar-chasing stunt in this biographical drama, which casts the drawling superstar as real-life Texas electrician Ron Woodroof. A homophobic good-old-boy who liked his men manly, his women loose, and his sex unprotected, Woodroof was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, when it was still thought of as the “gay virus.” Shunned by his friends and given 30 days to live by his doctors, this take-no-shit cowboy pulled up his boots and began fighting for his life—first by illegally acquiring the trial drug AZT, then by heading to Mexico to get his hands on alternative medications. Eventually, he set up the titular black market for his fellow afflicted, smuggling unapproved drugs into the country and selling them at affordable rates. He died in 1992, but not before taking his battle with the FDA to court.
Starting a mini medical revolution, mostly by simply refusing to take his death sentence lying down, Woodroof is an indelible subject for a movie—the sonavubitch savior. So lively is McConaughey in the part, which is perfectly suited to his swaggering charisma, that it’s easy to forgive that a fascinating life story has been reduced to a David-versus-Goliath crowd-pleaser. (At times, it almost resembles Blow crossed with Erin Brockovich.) As with too many biopics, Dallas Buyers Club attempts to conform the facts to dramatic conventions. Every folk-hero saga needs a hiss-worthy adversary, and the filmmakers here provide two: an arrogant medical administrator (Denis O’Hare), committed to the potentially dangerous AZT trial his hospital is conducting, and a tight-ass FDA officer (Michael O’Neill). Speaking of the latter, the script frames the FDA as the big enemy, using bullying techniques to try and shut down Woodroof’s operation, but at least one source suggests that the organization looked the other way, at least for a time. Also slightly suspect is the film’s outright condemnation of AZT. Still used today in some of the popular AIDS treatment cocktails, the drug is denigrated in the film as a “toxic” non-solution that should be “flushed down the toilet.” It’s always easier to villainize than to try and convey the whole, complicated truth.
On the other end of the good-to-bad-guy spectrum is Woodroof’s quasi love interest, a sympathetic doctor (Jennifer Garner) who begins to increasingly see things his way. Like many of the characters in Dallas Buyers Club, she’s supposedly based on a real person, but never quite feels like one. (Her big, cathartic moment involves borrowing the protagonist’s favorite kiss-off.) Much more believable is the relationship between Woodroof and his business partner, a transsexual patient portrayed, in a performance as remarkable as McConaughey’s, by Jared Leto. Though some of their interactions are played for odd-couple comedy, with the movie taking just a bit too much pleasure in the hero’s constant slurs, there’s also something pretty moving about the way Woodroof’s discomfort slowly shades into affection.
Set during the same timeframe as last year’s How To Survive A Plague, a gripping report-from-the-frontlines documentary about the fight against AIDS, Dallas Buyers Club relays a nearly identical message: That the key to coping with the virus, especially during those scary early days when no one knew anything, was getting educated. Fiercely determined to beat this thing, Woodroof reads everything he can, essentially becoming his own physician. In a process, he also becomes a better man, learning to see people he once irrationally despised as customers, then allies, then kindred spirits and even friends. There’s something undeniably affecting about that trajectory, which allows McConaughey to turn his character into an empathetic figure—one whose prejudice fades as his fighting spirit intensifies—without sacrificing his rapscallion spirit. He’s the same loudmouthed macho braggart at the end of the movie than he was at the beginning, but now he’s a loudmouthed macho braggart with purpose. As metamorphoses go, that’s not as obviously impressive as losing 30 pounds, but it’s plenty impressive still.