Matthew McConaughey’s reemergence as a talented, important actor in the past few years is something to admire. After an impressive supporting turn in Magic Mike, and a great central performance in one of the year’s best films, Mud, he demonstrates with Dallas Buyers Club that he can instill any role with a vivacity and grace that would fill any actor with jealousy. Jean-Marc Vallée’s film dives deep into the hysteria of the 1980s spread of HIV/AIDS, honing in on McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof, a promiscuous man who indulges in sex and drugs as if they were tasty snacks in preparation for daily meals. After having some fainting trips and feeling generally uneasy, he wakes up on a hospital bed in front of two doctors, played by Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner. They both wear hospital masks, handing him pamphlets letting him know he has contracted HIV. The subtle emphasis within the frame on their uncertainty of the containment of the virus and Woodroof’s denial are brilliant.

Only homosexual sex causes HIV. That’s the belief of most of the central characters in the film, ranging from the central hero to his best pal, T.J. (Kevin Rankin). Ron can no longer live a normal life after his friends find out, calling him a fag and isolating him in a way he’s never felt. Then again, Ron is also a bigot, fearful of “homos” and their supposed desire to spread disease and disgust. McConaughey underlies this struggle masterfully, creating a largely unsympathetic portrayal through the film’s first half; his spews of hatred, indulgence in unprotected sex with prostitutes, and prolonged use of cocaine do not make him a relatable or personable presence. Yet his transformation throughout the feature, coming from his budding friendship with Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) and Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender man he meets in the hospital, works wonders because McConaughey creates a believably transformative arc. It’s undoubtedly one of the year’s best performances, and probably his best performance to date.

Vallée’s direction is tense and his editing, along with Martin Pensa’s work, enables the film to work on an extraordinary level. Scenes are often cut to black, only to jump to another scene taking place shortly thereafter, defining Woodroof’s world blacking out and changing in front of his eyes. Leto’s performance as Rayon evolves from showy to deeply moving, a testament to Borten and Wallack’s screenplay as much as it is to Leto. He’s masterful, as is Garner, who effectively establishes her own presence; there’s also a grace to the way the film navigates the central relationships and does not create a strict romance. What should be a harrowing film genuinely becomes uplifting, even if the ending will not be easy on its main characters. Their desire to help others, though, creating a “buyers club” that allows for people to get medically untested medicine to cure their symptoms is a testament to humanity itself. Vallée’s film is tenderly affecting and agonizingly detailed, a brilliant establishment of disease-induced hysteria and inherent kindness.

Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)

Written by Eric Forthun