Playing for keeps: Matthew McConaughey triumphs in Dallas Buyers Club

by Mark Burger

Ron Woodruff was a hard-drinking, hard-living good ol’ boy with the streak of the bad boy in him. He liked to play hard and play rough. He liked drinking, drugging, and spending time (preferably a night) with ladies of equal tastes.

Then one day in 1985, it all caught up with him when he was diagnosed HIV-positive. It’s an instant death sentence, and also makes the heretofore homophobic Ron a pariah among his like-minded friends.

The real-life Ron Woodruff has been immortalized on screen in fantastic fashion by Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, the latest effort from director Jean- Marc Vallee and unquestionably one of the most powerful films of the year.

The title refers to the “network” that Ron established, through means fair and mostly foul, to procure drugs and vitamins that have not as yet been approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for use in treating AIDS sufferers in the United States. As a sufferer himself and fully aware how little time he has, Ron has no time for such niceties as standard medical procedure, legal hurdles or bureaucratic red tape.

Ron might not be particularly bright, and even as played by the innately likable McConaughey he’s frequently boorish, but he’s crafty and resourceful — and he’s got nothing to lose. There’s a vicarious pleasure in watching the character defy authority and break every rule in the book. The end clearly justifies the means, and he won’t be swayed from that. Ron becomes a humanitarian almost by accident, forced by circumstances into action — as much for his own survival as that of his fellow AIDS patients.

Screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack are, however, wise enough not to make Ron’s transformation into an unlikely savior an immediate or earth-shattering one. Ron Woodruff wasn’t a saint and he’s not portrayed as one. Admittedly, Dallas Buyers Club has the unmistakable imprint of a cause movie and a message movie, but not at the expense of the story’s credibility or the validity of its cause or message. Its inevitable preaching is kept to a minimum throughout.

These have been heady days for McConaughey of late, given his fine turns in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) — his was unquestionably the best performance in the film — and in Jeff Nichols’ Mud earlier this year. His excellent, sometimes excruciating work here ranks as among his very best, and will likely draw major attention during awards consideration.

Jennifer Garner plays a doctor whose respect for Ron, begrudging at first, increases when she herself clashes with the medical establishment. Representing that predictably antagonistic entity is Denis O’Hare, who’s not as loathsome as the character might have been in lesser hands. Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts and Griffin Dunne also make solid impressions in supporting roles, and an unrecognizable Jared Leto is a revelation as Rayon, an ailing transsexual who becomes Ron’s unlikeliest ally.

Yet, appropriately enough, it’s McConaughey who holds everything together.

Having lost 40 pounds for the role, he looks alarmingly bony and frail, yet he’s burning with passion and, indeed, compassion. Ron Woodruff lived life on his own terms, and he was damn well going to die by them, too.

Dallas Buyers Club opens at a/perture cinema in Winston-Salem on Friday.