Not since Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for "Philadelphia" has a major Hollywood star portrayed a person afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Now, Matthew McConaughey follows his mucho-macho "Magic Mike"/"Mud" characterizations with this gritty, frail man-against-the-system drama, based on true events.

When he's not working as an electrician, Roy Woodruff (McConaughey) is a bull-riding rodeo cowboy, a Texas redneck bigot who openly mocks homosexuals -- until, in 1985, he discovers he's HIV-positive. Stunned by the diagnosis, he refuses to believe the doctors (Denis O'Hare, Jennifer Garner) that he has only 30 days to live. Proclaiming, "I ain't no dang queer," Roy balks at participating in a double-blind AZT trial at Dallas Mercy Hospital, afraid he'll be given a placebo. So he buys AZT illegally, only to discover it's making him worse, especially since he also chain smokes, guzzles booze, snorts cocaine and gulps methamphetamines. Through extensive research, he finds an unorthodox doctor (Griffin Dunne) at a Mexican clinic, where he learns about alternative treatments and starts smuggling them into Dallas.

With the help of an unlikely friend, Rayon (unrecognizable Jared Leto), a transsexual druggie, street-smart Roy organizes a "buyer's club" where HIV-positive/AIDS-infected members pay $400 monthly dues for his newly acquired, unauthorized supplies, as opposed to the $10,000 a year that pharmaceutical companies charge for AZT, despite its toxicity. That success leads rebellious, resourceful Roy to visit Japan, China and the Netherlands, searching for new AIDS drugs, despite attempts by the FDA, DEA and IRS to shut him down.

Empathetically scripted by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallick and grittily helmed in minimalist style by French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee ("C.R.A.Z.Y.," "The Young Victoria") with Yves Belanger's handheld camera work, it's most memorable for McConaughey's convincing, complex, tour-de-force performance and astonishing physical transformation. While publicists say he lost 38 pounds, on his wiry, emaciated frame, it looks more like 50. And making a remarkable return to acting, singer/musician Leto is a revelation.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Dallas Buyers Club" is an admirable 8 -- a desperately sad, yet redemptive character study.

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