What's been missing from all the movies about AIDS and the history of the AIDS crisis is that Matthew McConaughey swagger. And we never would have realized that if he hadn't made "Dallas Buyers Club."
Here's a film about the early years of the crisis packed with a healthy dose of evolving attitudes about AIDS and homosexuality and good-ol'-boy get-'er-done optimism. And if McConaughey and his co-star Jared Leto don't earn Oscar nominations for "Buyers Club," I'll eat my 10-gallon hat.
We meet Ron Woodroof as a sweaty, scrawny sex machine -- profane, homophobic, coke-snorting, whiskey-drinking and gaunt, gaunt, gaunt.
It's not a good look for McConaughey, who lost a lot of weight for this film. It's not a good look for anybody.
This being 1985 Texas, Ron, a card-playing electrician working on oil rigs, is all about honky-tonks, rodeos and living in the moment. We see his unprotected sex, watch him share drinks and pass a joint. When he gets in a tussle, we see his blood get all over everything. We fret because we know what's coming.
An accident puts him in the hospital, where they figure out his other health issue.
"Frankly, we're surprised you're still alive," the doctors (Jennifer Garner, Denis O'Hare) tell him. He probably has just 30 days to get his affairs in order.
Woodroof storms out, committed to denial. Jean-Marc Vallee's film counts off the days -- "Day 1, "Day 8" -- waiting for him to come around.
The first grand twist in "Dallas Buyers Club" is learning that Woodroof isn't some ignorant hick. He goes to the library, does some research and when he can't get on a drug trial that guarantees him the "miracle" drug, he buys stolen AZT. He winds up in Mexico, where a doc who lost his license (Griffin Dunne, very good) is on the front lines of the AIDS war, and is sharing, with his patients, everything and anything that the world's researchers can come up with. Woodroof starts smuggling the stuff to America. The FDA doesn't approve?
"Screw the FDA," he drawls. "I'm gonna be DOA."
The great conflicts set up here are Woodroof's efforts to fool the Border Patrol, the FDA, the DEA and the doctors who put regulations before the slim hopes of desperate, dying patients.
An utterly unrecognizable Leto plays a cross-dressing gay AIDS patient who sees Woodroof's traveling/smuggling pharmacy as a lifeline, and ignores Ron's homophobia long enough for them to team up and steal an idea that's worked elsewhere. They'll set up a drug "Buyers Club" that protects them from drug dealing charges and gives AIDS patients a fighting chance with the latest promising drugs from abroad.
A great touch, the way this friendship of convenience builds. McConaughey delivers the brazen, foul-mouthed laughs and Leto tugs at your heart. Vallee ("The Young Victoria"), working from a script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, may be taking things in heart-warming directions, but he's in no hur
ry to do it.
The doctor who will be tempted to do the right thing resists doing that right thing. Woodroof and Rayon (Leto) try to change the lifelong habits that might doom them, with limited success.
"Dallas Buyers Club" can be faulted for hiding the death sentences that AIDS handed out in the '80s, for casting things a tad too on the nose -- with Steve Zahn as Woodroof's cop pal and Dallas Roberts as his drawling, sympathetic lawyer.
But that takes nothing away from this proactive, uplifting and thoroughly entertaining jaunt through AIDS history, and the epic commitment of its actors to do right by it. "Dallas Buyers Club" is one of the best pictures of the year.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
4 stars (Grade: A)
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack . A Focus Features release
Running time: 1:57
MPAA rating: R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use