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It is easy to forget that when the AIDS crisis hit the U.S. in the mid-1980s there was a collective reaction by the public which was an amalgam of fear, anger and confusion. Doctors didn’t know enough about the disease to treat it; the federal Food and Drug Administration was slow to react to an onslaught of treatments seeking approval; and, meanwhile, people were dying in unprecedented numbers. All of this led those who were infected to seek alternative – and sometimes dangerous – treatments, most of which were ineffective at best.

Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texas man who, in 1985, found out he was infected with HIV. Through Ron, we experience the frustrating and nearly absurd battle fought by millions of people who were struggling just to stay alive. Ron is a proud heterosexual living in Texas, so the fact that he has contracted what was being called “the gay cancer” ostracizes him from his community of rodeo enthusiasts and good ‘ol boys. The only glimmer of hope at that time was the drug AZT whose short-term effects were mildly encouraging and long-term effects were unknown. When Ron is denied entry into an AZT trial, he begins searching for other treatments, a journey which leads him to an exiled former U.S. doctor named Vass (Griffin Dunne).

In his desperate fight to stay alive, Ron meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual who is also infected. Ron and Rayon develop a partnership to sell the alternative treatments Ron has brought back from Mexico. They begin the Dallas Buyers Club, a membership-only organization that provides AIDS-stricken people with the medicine the FDA and doctors won’t let them have. With the help of a rogue doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), Ron and Rayon are able to bring a small sense of optimism to the hundreds of infected people living in their community.

Ron Woodroof’s story is heartbreaking and infuriating, made more so by McConaughey’s outstanding performance. The last few years have seen McConaughey re-invent himself as an actor, taking roles which challenge him on a physical and emotional level. McConaughey’s dramatic weight loss for the role – and it is staggering – is not the most impressive aspect of his performance. His complete lack of vanity and commitment to the role is akin to the work Christian Bale does time and time again. Ron’s desperation is communicated through the sheer panic in his eyes and steadily more broken posture as he is repeatedly beaten down by the federal government. If not his most impressive work to date, this is certainly McConaughey’s most authentic.

Ron’s story wouldn’t be complete without his partner in “crime,” Rayon, played by Jared Leto in a performance that is beautifully deep. Rayon is not a caricature of the transgender community. Leto makes Rayon a real person whose physical appearance betrays his inner self. Leto also transformed himself physically, being almost unrecognizable for most of the film. His voice, though, may be the most surprising change, however. Rayon’s manner of speech, cadence and tone is so completely different from Leto’s true voice it is uncanny. Both McConaughey and Leto deserve serious recognition when the awards season launches next month.

Despite the two powerhouse performances by McConaughey and Leto, Dallas Buyers Club suffers severely from the lack of directorial control by Jean-Marc Vallee and a maddeningly uneven script from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. The film doesn’t progress so much as keep happening. The script signals it will move in one direction and then goes off the rails as a more interesting storyline catches its interest. What begins as a one-man odyssey for justice morphs into what could be a terrific examination of a non-sexual relationship between two men brought together through the most unthinkable of circumstances. This is then eschewed for an overt condemnation of the big pharmaceutical companies and government bureaucracy. Borten and Wallack regurgitate every type of “message film” trope they can conceive of while their script’s tone lacks any type of focus.

Vallee, for his part, allows all of this to happen and gets in on the action, blending so many directorial styles it becomes dizzying. The film opens as a tender, indie-spirited drama but becomes a bad Danny Boyle rip off as Ron begins travelling the world, complete with frenetic camera work and excessive music cues. The film, which should be engaging from beginning to end, becomes boring by the end due to Vallee’s pathetic work as director. There is no impact or punch because Vallee lets every story and every character just fizzle out of existence, a sad end to what should have been a magnificent tribute to those whose lives needlessly ended.

Grade: C-

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