Before playing a desperado in "Mud" earlier this year, Matthew McConaughey hit a trifecta of dangerous roles that could have killed his career had they not been spot-on. In that sense, McConaughey has become the Jennifer Jason Leigh of the 21st century.
He played the cocky male stripper/club manager in "Magic Mike," the sexually twisted hit man in "Killer Joe," then the sexually twisted attorney in "The Paperboy."
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"Dallas Buyers Club"★ ★ ★ ★
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O'Hare
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee
Other: A Focus Features release. Rated R for drug use, language, nudity, sexual situations. 117 minutes
These roles now seem to be mere prep-work for his latest multifaceted performance in the fact-based drama "Dallas Buyers Club," a project so brilliantly engineered, it becomes a perfect movie magnet appealing to all segments across the American political spectrum.
For the right, "Dallas Buyers Club" tells the inspiring tale of a Texas man who, against overwhelming adversity, pulls himself up by his (literal) bootstraps and struggles to transform personal calamity into an entrepreneurial opportunity.
For the left, "Dallas Buyers Club" gives us the tender story of an icky homophobe who -- forced to work with gays, transvestites and transsexuals -- slowly begins to see one mass of hurting humanity instead of "others" defined by sexual preferences.
What's not to love about a motion picture that Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow can both watch and enjoy?
From the moment "Dallas Buyers Club" begins in 1985, a gaunt, sickly thin McConaughey lets us know he doesn't care about making the character likable.
He plays Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician and hedonistic rodeo devotee who introduces himself to us by having sex with a nameless woman in a holding stall just before he goes out to ride a bucking animal.
An accident sends him to the hospital where a couple of doctors named Sevard and Saks (Denis O'Hare and Jennifer Garner) give him a shocking, grim diagnosis: He has the AIDS virus and has 30 days to live. Maybe.
Ron's raging reaction surprises us, for he seems less bothered by the death sentence than how it looks for him to have a disease associated (at the time) with homosexual activity.
His friends ridicule him and boot him out of their circle.
Desperate, without a family or any support system, Ron channels his energies into learning everything he can about AIDS. Believing that he has less than a month to save his own life, the Texan pores over information on this relatively new disease that he thinks is the biggest hurdle of his life.
Then he runs into the slow American medical system.
He doesn't have time to chance being given placebos in medical trials for a new drug called AZT. So Ron bribes an orderly to smuggle him AZT. When that source dries up, Ron heads to Mexico to get fixed up by a transplanted American doctor (Griffin Dunne).
Ron creates a nutritious diet of food intended to bolster his system and stave off the effects of AIDS.
Then, the bigoted Texan does something he would have never done earlier: He becomes business partners with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual drug addict he met while in the hospital.
Together, they create an under-the-radar organization that sells AIDS drugs directly to patients who can't afford them or get them.
Life and profits are good. Until the operation attracts the attention of the IRS, DEA and FDA.
"Dallas Buyers Club" comes to resemble a typical Hollywood "good man against a bad system" underdog drama.
But this movie, like McConaughey's performance, rejects the sentimentality and prefab heroics that usually afflict such standard Hollywood fare.
Directed with grit and polish by Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee, "Dallas Buyers Club" is one of the year's finest motion pictures, one that zaps our expectations with dramatic zingers, the biggest being McConaughey's tightrope performance.
He takes Ron from a self-centered bigot with a heart two sizes too small and transforms him into a tough businessman with a heart only one size too small.
Hey, it's still a victory for the heart.