Jean-Marc Vallee

With: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto

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Runtime: 117 minutes

AT one point during Dallas Buyers Club the old Marc Bolan hit, Life Is Strange, moseys out. Reflective, moving, with just the right touch of velvety kookiness, it is the perfect pop hymn for Jean-Marc Vallee's handsome and bold drama, which is in the running for six Oscars, including one for Matthew McConaughey in the lead.

Drawn from the true story of a redneck Texas electrician who is told he has HIV and has 30 days to live, Dallas Buyers Club is very much a period piece. Not just because it is set in the 1980s. As every World Aids Day reminds us, HIV has not gone away. But cinematically, Vallee's picture harks back to the 1970s, when character was king. And what a character the picture has in Ron Woodroof, played by McConaughey, and what an actor McConaughey once again proves himself to be in bringing this story alive.

The first time we see Woodroof he is acting like a comedy advertisement for Texan manhood. Behind the scenes at a rodeo in 1985, he is in the company of two women. By the grunts and snuffles, we can tell they are probably not discussing the finer points of President Reagan's foreign policy. To define the character still further, the screenplay has Woodruff and his friends discussing, with evident revulsion, Rock Hudson's death of that year. Immediately we are thrown back to a time of prejudice and fear, of adverts featuring icebergs and Grim Reaper voiceovers, when HIV and Aids was something that happened to other people. Vallee sets up the assumptions perfectly, then he and McConaughey drive a bulldozer through them.

After an accident at work, Woodroof lands in hospital where doctors, one of them played by Jennifer Garner, break the news that he is HIV positive. Woodroof duly goes through the motions of dealing with a death, in this case his own, including anger and denial. But though time is against him, he does not stop there. The survival instinct kicks in, laced with a few belts of good old boy Texan orneriness, and he determines to find out what treatments will help him. After all, it's the late 20th century; people are not going to be left to die for want of proper, affordable treatment, right? Wrong, as so many found out.

The screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack spends some time educating Woodroof and the audience about the various early treatments available. At times the story becomes lost in a blizzard of acronyms and medical terms, but we get the basic message: what Woodroof and others need is not being supplied. Why, and what can be done about it, are the questions lined up next.

The second question is answered as we see Woodroof travelling across the States and further afield, bringing back medication and selling it through his buyers club as a way of trying to keep one step ahead of the medical authorities. But it is in answering the first question - why he had to go to such lengths - that the film comes into its own.

Most of Woodroof's customers hail from the gay community and he goes into business with Rayon (played by Jared Leto), a transsexual and Aids patient. For Woodroof, this involves hiking a learning curve as steep as the last stages of Everest. The screenplay, and McConaughey, are not afraid of playing up the less than heroic, hard-nosed aspects of the character, so that when he does reach the summit the achievement is all the more convincing. There is real heart on display here, but the picture takes its time to show it.

Though McConaughey is the star turn, Leto ensures it is a meeting of acting equals through his portrayal of Rayon. Gutsy, fearless, yet ultimately vulnerable, Rayon is a mirror portrait of Woodroof, his brother in arms against the medical machine. Garner has a tough time getting between the two, but her scenes with McConaughey are among the more moving because his character is reminded of the man he once was, the life and the future that have been taken away.

While Woodroof's attitudes change at a glacial pace, the physical transformation is fast and shocking. Already thin when we first meet him, he progresses to a painfully bare-boned state. Extreme physical transformations are nothing new in the movies; they are in danger, indeed, of becoming a cliche. But here, as in Raging Bull, weight is as much a part of the character as eye colour. Just as Jake LaMotta grew bloated with excess, so Woodroof is reduced to his essentials as a man fighting for his life.

The Best Actor fight this year is world heavyweight, with McConaughey up against Christian Bale (American Hustle), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf Of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave) and Bruce Dern (Nebraska). Ditto the Best Picture battle. If Vallee's film has as much fighting spirit as it portrays, don't count it out of being among the big winners on the night.

Matthew McConaughey is interviewed in The Herald magazine this Saturday.