McConaughey rises to the challenge of the role in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

Matthew McConaughey, always an actor with abundant spirit and straight-eyed focus, delivers what may be his most courageous performance in the New Orleans-shot “Dallas Buyers Club.”

McConaughey plays rough neck Texas electrician and rodeo rider Ron Woodroof. Besides rodeo, Woodroof loves ladies, liquor, drugs and gambling. At 35, in 1985, he’s living like his fun will never end.

Suddenly, Woodroof feels awful. He’s having coughing fits. And following a gambling incident that nearly gets him beaten up by a bunch of angry cowboys, Woodroof collapses in his trailer. And then a workplace accident gets him sent to a hospital. It’s there that he learns he has tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The doctors estimate he has 30 days left to live.

Woodroof rejects the verdict.

“There ain’t nothing out there that kill Ron Woodroof in 30 days,” he says.

McConaughey throws down the gauntlet as Woodroof. The tough cowboy insists on getting a second opinion but, given the severe parameters imposed upon by the U.S. medical establishment, he must provide the alternatives himself.

McConaughey is an actor who can vividly play a character who rises up and battles his foes. In addition to the emotional investment his role as Woodroof required, McConaughey lost nearly 50 pounds to portray the emaciated cowboy. In an especially dark scene, he weighs just 135 pounds.

Woodroof’s life-extending, attitude-adjusting journey really begins after his illicit supply of AZT, a drug then in clinical trials, dries up. Discovering alternative, even non-toxic treatments for AIDS at a Mexican clinic, he acquires the treatments for himself with an eye toward offering them to fellow AIDS patients.

McConaughey brings moviegoers along for the initially homophobic Woodroof’s evolution. The actor pulls his character’s unlikely alliances off with a truthful mix of newfound tolerance and common-sense grit. Set in the deeply conservative state of Texas, the film’s best dramatic scenes include Woodroof’s confrontations with friends and colleagues who shun him because he has “that gay disease.” Woodroof had the same attitude just weeks earlier.

Not necessarily out of the goodness of his heart, Woodroof enlists his former hospital roommate, transsexual Rayon, played by Jared Leto in drag, to help him pitch alternative treatments to members of Dallas’ AIDS-afflicted community.

Woodroof’s enemies include the medical establishment, pharmaceutical companies, the FBI and the IRS. Jennifer Garner co-stars as Dr. Eve Saks, a Dallas doctor who can, eventually, accept being in the wrong. Denis O’Hare plays Saks’ intractable colleague, a reflection of nearly everyone else in the story who has the power to save lives.

It’s McConaughey’s Woodroof who wears the white hat in “Dallas Buyers Club.” The actor tackles the role like he’s riding one of Woodroof’s bucking bulls.