An imperfect man fights for survival during an uncertain time in America. Inspired by true events, Ron Woodroof’s story of strength is told in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée from an original screenplay by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack. Spirit Award winner Matthew McConaughey portrays the real-life character, whose self-interest is galvanized into something much more.

With Dallas Buyers Club, Focus Features has given us what we like best — a chance to see Matthew McConaughey (Dazed and Confused, Magic Mike) playing a Texas hustler with a heart of gold, Ron Woodruff. We expect McConaughey to be good in what is essentially his default role, and he is. But Jared Leto (American Psycho, Fight Club) is the scene-stealer here, and provides the heart of the movie. Frankly, Leto has never really been on my radar before this, but I’ll wager I’m not the only one taking notice come awards season.

This movie doesn’t waste time getting to the point. You get a brief glimpse of Ron’s life — rednecks, rodeo, women, drugs, gambling — before a workplace accident sends him to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live by Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner; Alias, Butter) and Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare; True Blood, The Good Wife). It’s hard to have too much sympathy for Ron at this point, since as far as you can tell he’s a total asshole. Suddenly he’s navigating a world where doctors don gloves and masks before entering his hospital room, people in the bar back away when he walks by, his friends hurl homosexual insults, and he is evicted from his home and loses his job due to his diagnosis.

As expected, Ron wants the quick fix. He attempts to buy experimental drug AZT from Dr. Saks, who tells him it’s not possible and explains about an upcoming human drug trial. Unsatisfied with a 50% possibility of getting the drug instead of the placebo, Ron takes his treatment into his own hands, bribing a hospital worker to steal and sell him AZT from the study. Once that supply dries up, Ron is forced to go to Mexico, where ex-pat Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne; House of Lies, Girls) opens his eyes to the dangers of AZT and the effects of his hard partying lifestyle on his susceptibility to disease. After three months of getting clean and alternative treatments, Ron realizes Dr. Vass is sitting on a gold mine of “not illegal but not FDA-approved” medicines, and his career as the for-profit Robin Hood of HIV/AIDS begins.

By now we realize Ron actually has some brains somewhere outside of his nether regions. In fact, he’s smart as hell, and you have to wonder what could’ve happened if that spark had been nurtured when he was a child. Brains will win you some sympathy, but you’ve got to have the heart to match, and Ron’s begins to show when he meets Rayon (Leto), a HIV-positive transsexual woman who is participating in the AZT trials.

Leto is a breath of fresh air, and his Rayon imbues the movie with new life. Much has been made of the physical transformations undergone by both McConaughey and Leto for their roles here, and that part is indeed astonishing. But Leto is the one who is truly almost unrecognizable, playing Rayon with an unexpected sensitivity. She gives us and Ron something to care about, and that in turn allows us to care about Ron. Hard living, queer-bashing, pre-diagnosis Ron wouldn’t recognize post-Rayon Ron, and that’s a good thing. Granted, the Dallas Buyer’s Club is a business, not a charity — if you can’t pay the membership fee, you can’t get in and get the medicine — but it’s a business that aims to provide the best care alternatives for a population whose only option is astronomically expensive and heavily toxic AZT.

Big pharmaceuticals are definitely the bad guys here, rushing human trials of a dangerous drug that sells for a huge profit, and hampering Ron’s attempts to sell his alternatives. Eve is conflicted by her desire to play by the rules and her increasing conviction that “the rules” may not be in the best interest of her patients, as she gets to know Ron and sees what the Club is accomplishing. Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t necessarily purport to have the right answers to these issues, though it’s clear on which side its sympathies lie.

In the end, the best parts of this film aren’t the “big issue” parts, but rather the relationships between the characters. The humanizing of Ron, his friendship with Rayon, the small moments of subtle humor, both dark and light — these are the reasons we care. As a child in the 80s, I was only dimly aware of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and Dallas Buyers Club helps put a face on the fear and desperation of a time when the disease was an automatic death sentence.

Dallas Buyers Club opens in theaters Today, November 15.

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