Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey, right) joins forces with fellow AIDS patient Rayon (Jared Leto) in Dallas Buyers Club (photo: Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features)
The early heroes of the AIDS epidemic were honored in How to Survive a Plague, a 2012 documentary that focused on efforts to pressure health officials to devote more resources to fighting the disease. Dallas Buyers Club dramatizes the self-serving but equally gutsy struggles of an AIDS hero who didn’t fit the usual mold: a hard-drinking, rodeo-loving electrician named Ron Woodroof. As played by the increasingly surprising Matthew McConaughey, Ron is not only straight but homophobic. When a doctor tells the Texan, one day in 1986, that he’s HIV-positive and has only 30 days to live, he greets the news with angry skepticism. “There ain’t nothing out there that can kill Ron Woodroof in 30 days,” he declares before storming out of the office. But as the weeks go by and he finds himself growing weaker and weaker, Ron begins looking for help. When a local hospital starts testing the new drug AZT, he bribes an orderly to sneak him samples. It’s only after the supply runs out that Ron finds his way to a Mexican clinic run by a renegade doctor named Voss (Griffin Dunne) who’s experimenting with more-holistic treatment options. Impressed by what Voss’s drugs do for him, Ron suggests that the clinic could earn much-needed money by offering them to patients north of the border. Since the treatments have not been approved by the FDA, Ron volunteers to smuggle them past customs and sell them himself—for a tidy profit. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee from a screenplay by Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack (Meet Bill), Dallas Buyers Club succeeds in selling a transformation that’s like a topsy-turvy version of the change Walter White underwent in Breaking Bad. Ron begins the flick as a low-life gambler whose alcoholism is so out of control that he doesn’t notice when an unknown man turns his tryst with a cowgirl into a three-way. Within months of learning he’s HIV-positive, however, Ron morphs into a businessman savvy enough to come up with the idea of a “buyers club” for AIDS patients: That way, he can pretend he’s selling them memberships rather than the forbidden drugs, which are simply a perk. Ron’s changes are credible largely because McConaughey inches his way through them without hitting a false note. After losing a startling 40-some pounds for the part, the former rom-com star has created a character who’s capable of surprising even himself in the name of self-preservation. Jennifer Garner is less compelling as Dr. Eve Saks, a sympathetic physician who arouses Ron’s romantic interest. But that’s OK, because the film’s central relationship is between Ron and Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual whose attempts to survive his own HIV infection are complicated by his addictions. Leto imbues the cross-dresser with nurturing sweetness without turning him into an effeminate stereotype. Ron Woodroof may not have fit the mold of the average AIDS hero, but his struggles with authorities helped to shape modern treatment options that have saved thousands. Dallas Buyers Club dramatizes his story in a way that’s both illuminating and entertaining. RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)

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