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How would you respond if you were given an expiration date?

It’s 1985. Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS-related illnesses pushes HIV paranoia into the mainstream. That’s where we find hard-drinking, womanizing Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey, emaciated), a part-time electrician and full-time bigot who spends his days bullshitting with small-minded compadres at his favorite Texas rodeo.

At first sight, the gaunt Woodroof appears to be dying, like the next drag off his perpetually lit cigarette is going to stop his heart or collapse a lung. Close enough. An accident on the job site sends Woodroof to a nearby hospital, where doctors inform him he, too, has been infected with HIV. The physicians admit that Ron’s t-cell count is so low, they’re shocked he isn’t dead yet. They tell him if he lives another 30 days, he’ll be a very lucky man.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s textured, rewarding Dallas Buyers Club illustrates exactly how Woodroof defeated that short-sighted diagnosis. He does so relying not on the experimental AZT – which his Texas hospital wants to peddle – but by seeking alternate, non-toxic vitamins and proteins available outside of the United States that don’t further damage healthy cells in an HIV patient’s body. Why aren’t they used in the U.S.? Because the FDA hasn’t approved them yet. And so, in relying on these medications, Woodroof must spends his final years fighting the FDA in addition to his own personal disease as he fights to get proper care in the hands of the patients who desperately need help now.

Dallas Buyers is a tightly-directed message movie with a rugged screenplay that has no interest being maudlin or preachy. It raises valid arguments about our slow-moving government not acting on behalf of sick citizens, wasting time on placebo tests that take time – which the dying simply don’t have. Understanding that Woodroof’s true-life story is powerful enough to stand on its own, Vallee enhances with small, subtle but effective flourishes. His use of a high-pitched dog whistle to signify the onset of Ron’s crippling symptoms reminded me of Spielberg rolling out John Williams’ score to suggest the presence of the Great White Shark in Jaws. Only a shark isn’t nearly as terrifying as the threat Ron stares down on a daily basis.

The story of Dallas Buyers though, is McConaughey, and his total commitment to Woodroof’s predicament. We tend to overreact when an actor drastically changes his or her appearance for an awards-bait role. McConaughey actually scared me. He looks like little more than a foul-mouthed skeleton as the movie opens. In an odd twist, Ron gets healthier as the movie progresses, and McConaughey’s able to put some of his weight back on. He never loses focus, though. He commands our attention in every scene, and keeps Ron as the rail-spitting Texas good-old-boy who doesn’t change all of his worldviews, even as his eyes are opened to a much bigger political and social problem.

Because McConaughey shines so extremely bright in Dallas Buyers, his co-stars don’t leave as much of an impression, even though they are handed scene-stealing material. Jared Leto has surprisingly warm chemistry with McConaughey as he plays Rayon, a trans woman who eventually becomes Ron’s unlikely business partner. Jennifer Garner is the doctor who track’s Woodroof’s progress with interest, even while she realizes how potentially reckless his actions could be in the long run. Both actors are solid in roles that could have been more substantial, but often just answer audience questions or dispense advice that helps McConaughey transition on to his next memorable sequence.

In that sense, Dallas also confirms what many of us suspected: McConaughey officially leaps into this year’s Oscar pool with both feet, and the significant “splash” he generates should ensure that other aspects of Vallee’s stirring production get “wet” in the process.

For more from this year's Toronto International Film Festival, click here

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