When it was released in 1993, Philadelphia was the first film to take on the AIDs epidemic of the 80s, and it was pitched at mainstream audiences; compelling but safe. Dallas Buyers Club takes different stance, more about the people than the principles, bringing reality to the fear and confusion that surrounded HIV at the time.

Based on a true story, Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof; a rodeo cowboy, part time electrician and womanizing homophobe with a substance problem, diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live. Alienated from his redneck community and treated with toxic drug AZT, he eventually finds new medication in Mexico that is effective at dealing with the symptoms and smuggles the unapproved drugs into the country to make some cash. After he inevitably gets arrested he sets up the titular ‘Buyers Club,’ a legal loophole where AIDs victims buy membership and receive treatment for free.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée uses a close, shaky-cam style that works uncomfortably well in putting across the feel of infection and disease. It isn’t overdone, and Vallée gives Woodroof plenty of room to develop, the feel of the film changing with him. Almost unrecognizable at 3 stone lighter, Matthew McConaughey is excellent. We feel the desperation and understand his actions even when telling a frightened HIV sufferer he can’t join for less than the fee: ‘it’s a business, not a charity.’ The connection to the character comes so naturally that when we get a direct explanation into why he may be as damaged as he is, it seems a little forced.

Rayon, Woodroof’s transgender and HIV positive partner-in-crime, is played by an equally skeletal Jared Leto, who has at the time of writing won even more awards for his role than McConaughey. Here the film lacks a little subtlety, painting a caricature of the gay community with the usually excellent but occasionally hammy Leto as the focal point. It shouldn’t be an issue that a straight male is playing the role, but more than once I wondered if Rayon would have been better portrayed by an unknown trans actor, which is not a good sign. The need to oversimplify also affects the flow of the movie in other ways: Vallée resorts to a Catch Me If You Can style montage of Woodroof in various costumes in airports around the world smuggling drugs, presumably to avoid the film straying from a character piece into a caper.

That said, Dallas Buyers Club overall is a must watch. We see very little of the wider campaign past glimpsed newspapers or TV news reports in the background (no mention of ACT UP or NAPWA) since this is the story of just one AIDs victim, but it works because the victim is played so well by McConaughey. The Wedding Planner and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days seem like distant memories of a different actor. Later this year he moves out of his recent indie transformation phase with Interstellar, the top-secret Christopher Nolan blockbuster that is ‘possibly about time travel and alternate dimensions.’ After seeing McConaughey shine as a lead, the sci-fi nerd in me is pretty damn excited.

By Michael Lane