Cowboy up!

Star performances drive biopic on cowboy-turned-Robin Hood for AIDS patients

Trunkful of hope.

Trunkful of hope.

Dallas Buyers Club Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Cinemark 14. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Lanky Ron Woodroof was a macho bullrider and full-time party animal from Texas. When doctors told him he was HIV-positive, he went into very angry denial. When his AIDS symptoms became overwhelmingly obvious, he began a headlong battle looking for cures—approved or not—and becoming a kind of outlaw advocate for AIDS patients.

Dallas Buyers Club charts Woodroof’s journey from macho, homophobic bon vivant to swashbuckling purveyor of medical alternatives. In the process, that blunt-edged machismo (a Texas-style cocktail of sex, drugs and rodeo) gradually morphs into something else. He sheds his chauvinism and prejudice and begins channeling his love of risk-taking into the fight against AIDS, especially the part of that battle that must be pursued outside the lines laid down by the medical, legal and business establishments in the U.S.

A big part of Woodroof’s story comes off here as a dark-humored picaresque escapade, a furiously rambunctious bootlegging caper in the midst of life-and-death emergencies. That makes for an intriguing narrative hook, but Dallas Buyers Club earns its deepest interest by way of two remarkable performances, along with the provocative diversity of its secondary characters.

Matthew McConaughey’s devilishly engaging performance as the rough-edged Woodroof is the film’s centerpiece, but both the performance and the characterization are markedly enriched by assorted encounters with all those secondary figures. The transvestite Rayon (a floridly sashaying Jared Leto) is at the top of that list, but there are several others worthy of special note—a police patrolman (Steve Zahn) who is Woodroof’s longtime pal; an increasingly sympathetic physician (Jennifer Garner); an unlicensed doctor (Griffin Dunne) who offers alternative cures from a clandestine south-of-the-border clinic; as well as a miscellany of bland authority figures in business suits.

McConaughey’s scenes with Leto are the best in the film. Many of those moments are little chapters in an ongoing story of crumbling stereotypes. And a supermarket contretemps with one of Woodroof’s former pals becomes the occasion for a sidelong gesture of genuine respect (from Woodroof) for Rayon. For that moment at least, the rodeo rowdy and the campy cross-dresser are players in a buddy-buddy story of a most unexpected sort.

The screenplay (written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) is very uneven. Director Jean-Marc Vallée and McConaughey make the most of its stronger points, but the scripted mixture of didacticism and entertainment sometimes falls flat. Dr. Eve Saks (Garner), to take the most conspicuous example, is a key medical ally, but the filmmakers’ insistence on bringing a facile romantic dimension to her story leaves both Garner and her character stranded in incoherence.

A not-quite-secret ingredient in all this is 1970s rocker Marc Bolan. Photos of Bolan are crucial to Rayon’s notions of interior decoration, and Vallée honors that impulse via three of Bolan’s T. Rex songs on the soundtrack.