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When Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia released worldwide in 1993, HIV AIDS was a closeted disease in most parts of the world and a social anomaly everywhere. The risk-friendly American director (who also directed The Silence of the Lambs) almost yanked it out to the open. A pioneering but politically correct film, Tom Hanks in the lead role and Denzel Washington as the AIDS-afflicted protagonist’s crusading lawyer, catalysed the film for mass appeal.

Twenty-one years later, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club takes sides on one of the debates concerning HIV in America. After the critical success of medical science, non-profit groups and philanthropists in tackling it, taking sides keeps the HIV issue on a boil. So the film is effective. The raw, devastating reality of HIV and AIDS registers with total force, making a case for understanding it humanely. Most medical establishments are ultimately anti-human, and Dallas Buyers Club, with an astoundingly inventive performance by Matthew McConaughey in the lead role, makes an emotionally powerful case for the rights of the ill. Vallée strips down the everyday struggles of an HIV-infected person.

The template is that of the foolproof “message film". With the right ingredients, a downbeat subject unfolds in a graph that evokes pity, sympathy and finally admiration, ensuring wide audiences. The writing by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack have some sinew, so the main characters are fleshed out, and at least given a shade or two, and there is more to the film than its politically incorrect stand on questioning the US Food and Drug Administrator’s (FDA) handling of HIV drugs and human trials with drugs.

Ultimately, however, Dallas Buyers Club rides on the McConaughey force. Who would have imagined that an actor best known shirtless, hewn in middle America, always the fetching, bedraggled son of the soil in romcoms, would immerse in a character that demands so much to execute yet have no gratifyingly happy climax? The actor has been building up to this stature with indie outings such as Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012). As Ron Woodroof, based on the real-life character of the same name, an electrician and rodeo hotshot from Texas, McConaughey has triumphantly combined grit, energy and remarkable clear-headedness. Whatever else might nag about the film’s treatment of a difficult subject, the actor connects Ron to the viewer at the most basic human level.

The physical as well as emotional transformation of the character through the film is staggeringly real. We meet Ron as a folksy Texan guy, excited by girls and the rodeo. He swears five times in a conversation that lasts two sentences, and in his small, deadbeat gang, he is a rockstar. When he is diagnosed as HIV-positive accidentally, he says he is “not a faggot", waves his middle finger at the doctors and walks out. In the next half-hour, torture and panic streak his face and body language, although Ron carries on being footloose Ron. The film picks up dramatic momentum after he accepts his condition. His homophobia gradually loses its ugly fury, and he connects with Rayon (Jared Leto), an HIV-positive drag queen, with whom he goes on to forge a long partnership. Leto, the multifaceted musician-actor famously refused to break character while preparing and shooting for this film, and humour drives his performance as a tragically tormented man beneath a snazzy, lipstick-doused woman.

Rayon and Ron start the Dallas Buyers Club, which illegally smuggles in medicines used for the HIV-positive, but which the FDA bans in America. They find a following, and besides making money, which motivates Ron to go on, he becomes a voice against the FDA’s autocracy. This gaunt man is impossible to silence. Eve (Jennifer Garner, in one of her small, but memorable roles after Juno and Butter), a doctor against new drug trials on humans, joins Ron in this battle.

By the rousing end, Ron is reed thin. He is connected to big realities, and is confronting, with deep remorse, some small things he can’t have. He tells Eve, for example, that he wants to be a father.

With McConaughey’s compelling portrayal, Dallas Buyers Club transcends the story’s predictability and brings HIV closer home.

Dallas Buyers Club releases in theatres on Friday.

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