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TORONTO – “Life is strange,” sings Marc Bolan in one of a handful of T. Rex classics heard on the soundtrack of The Dallas Buyers Club. Putting fresh kinks in the familiar AIDS narrative, Jean-Marc Vallee’s enthralling drama recounts the strange life of Ron Woodroof, a womanizing Texas homophobe who stares down a 30-day death sentence and hustles his way to a place on the vanguard of experimental HIV/AIDS treatment.
The potentially downbeat subject matter is handled with vigor and an assured light touch, but the Focus Features release will get its biggest assist from the tremendous gusto of Matthew McConaughey’s lead performance. While much of the attention will focus on the actor’s astonishing weight loss for the role, transforming himself into a gaunt bag of bones for a good part of the action, this is a full-bodied characterization that will take McConaughey’s already impressive career regeneration several steps further.
His recent director on Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh, comes to mind while watching this accomplished feature from Quebecois filmmaker Vallee (C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria). The unconstrained visual style, the gritty feel for environment, the ease of the character interplay and the fuss-free, almost casual eye for detail all recall the looseness and vitality of Soderbergh’s best work.
Vallee and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack waste no time in conveying what type of man Ron is, introducing him in the midst of a coke-fueled three-way in a rodeo holding pen with a couple of trashy women. A Dallas electrician by trade and a reckless cowboy by nature, he lands in Mercy Hospital in 1985 after a minor work accident. A blood test reveals he has the HIV virus and an alarmingly low T-cell count. But he reacts with hostility to doctors Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), interpreting their diagnosis as a slur on his rampantly heterosexual masculinity.
After some hard-partying denial, the stark reality of his deteriorating health prompts Ron to start researching the virus. Unwilling to take his chances in clinical trials for the new drug AZT, he begins buying doses from a crooked hospital orderly. But when that supply dries up, he crosses the border to Mexico, where an unlicensed American doctor (Griffin Dunne) is getting results with alternative treatments.
Translating his own urgent need for medication into an entrepreneurial opportunity, Ron begins smuggling supplies of vitamin- and protein-based anti-viral meds into Texas. In order to build a client base among the unfamiliar gay community, he partners with a drug-addicted transsexual he met in the hospital, Rayon (Jared Leto), who isn’t scared off by bigoted Ron’s animosity.
To get around potential legal strife they establish a club in which monthly membership buys a full treatment regimen. Ron also begins traveling – to Japan, China, the Netherlands – for AIDS drugs being developed abroad, undeterred by the attempts of the FDA, the DEA and the IRS to shut him down.
The contemplative movie doesn’t advocate self-medication, nor does it trivialize the long and hard-fought frontline battle for effective HIV treatment in America (see last year’s brilliant doc, How to Survive a Plague) by elevating the rogue efforts of a straight guy. It tells a very specific story of one AIDS patient’s refusal to slink off and die quietly while the medical profession and pharmaceutical giants dragged their heels, focusing almost exclusively on prohibitively expensive AZT and ignoring its toxic side effects.
While that shameful chapter of American institutional failure to address a pandemic is explored only peripherally here, it provides rich background texture. Likewise the homophobic ignorance directed at Ron by his former drinking buddies, giving him an illuminating taste of his own intolerance.
But what distinguishes Borten and Wallack’s screenplay is its refusal to sentimentalize by providing humbling epiphanies to set Ron on the right path and endow him with empathy. His racket remains driven primarily by self-interest, and yet almost unwittingly, his crusade for the right to control his treatment becomes an altruistic one, while his attitude toward people he once scorned softens by imperceptible degrees.
McConaughey plays these subtle shifts beautifully in a rowdy turn that’s full of piss and vinegar but also unexpected heart. Ron is presented as such irredeemable trash early on that it requires an actor who can own the rough edges but also has real charm deployment skills to keep him in our sympathies. McConaughey aces that tricky balancing act. He has affecting moments, both with Garner and Leto, but the surprise is how funny he makes the story of a man pushing back death.
Garner’s role has less dimension, but she brings a lot of warmth as Eve comes around to admiring Ron’s resourcefulness and recognizing the merit in what he’s doing. In the showier supporting role, Leto is simply wonderful. Fully inhabiting Rayon, he makes the slender creature anything but synthetic, his flirtatious banter poignantly underscored by helpless self-destructiveness.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Opens: Friday, Nov. 1 (Focus Features)
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O’Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin, Donna Duplantier, Deneen Tyler
Production companies: Voltage Pictures, R2 Films, Evolution Independent
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Screenwriters: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Producers: Robbie Brenner, Rachel Winter
Executive producers: David Bushell, Nathan Ross, Tony Notargiacomo, Joe Newcomb, Nicolas Chartier, Zev Foreman, Logan Levy, Holly Wiersma, Cassian Elwes
Director of photography: Yves Belanger
Production designer: John Paino
Editors: John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa
Costume designers: Kurt and Bart
Sales: Voltage Pictures
No rating, 116 minutes.
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