Much has been made about the supposed “redemption” of Matthew McConaughey as an actor, through a serious of credible and laudable roles in such movies as Killer Joe (2011), Magic Mike (2012), Mud (2012) and, most recently, Dallas Buyers Club. What hasn’t gotten much ado at all is how the latter, a “fact-based,” AIDS Crisis drama, redeems one of the least likable cinematic characters in recent memory. Seriously, folks, this is a bitter, homophobic, sexist, racist and unrepentant character who makes Ender’s Game whiner/psychopath Ender Wiggin seem downright lovable and cuddly by comparison. (Even the NFL’s latest cause celebre, Richie Incognito, has nothing on this guy.) As such, the character provides more than adequate acting fodder for a gaunt, rail-thin McConaughey and gives the filmmakers a sneaky way to get us into this story without becoming overly preachy or didactic.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have some overly expository moments, or even a couple of heavy-handed ones. But even those are done with some evidence of skill and smarts. Also, Buyers Club is surprisingly balanced, in terms of the way it treats its characters and concepts. And it’s bound to be controversial, because of the way the ‘80s-period piece criticizes Big Pharma, the Food and Drug Administration and the medical industry’s initial response to the AIDS crisis. (Let’s just say it questions the motives of all three and leave it at that.)

McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, an electrician and part-time bull rider who’s gotten some unexpected and unpleasant news: He’s HIV-positive. In fact, one Dallas-based physician, Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare), has given him about a month to live. Ron, who’s snorted, smoked and slept with most of the available people (female) and substances in the state, is in denial at first. But then he buddies up to some key employees at Sevard’s hospital, which is among the first to receive and use the just-approved AIDS drug AZT. Ron bribes a janitor to gets his hands on the drug. However, this illicit, illegal supply quickly dries up, and while seeking more AZT south of the border, he nearly dies. He’s saved by an expatriate physician, Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who sends him back to the United States with a car trunk full of medicines and substances (not AZT) that appear to be doing a more effective job of fighting the virus. Armed with these drugs and that knowledge, Ron decides to start a new “business,” selling the illegal substances to HIV-positive locals, including Rayon (Jared Leto), a drag queen who eventually becomes his business partner. And by her turning a blind eye, he receives unexpected help from Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), a colleague of Sevard who also has some concerns about the AZT experimental treatment program.

It’s dark material, to be sure, but director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack (Mirror Mirror) know when to lighten things with occasional humor that’s fitting with the material and character. And while the main character eventually softens his stance towards his fellow HIV-positive Texans, he’s still a borderline sociopath. So make no mistake about it, this is among McConaughey’s best-ever performances. As Ron, he bears an eerie resemblance to NASCAR great Richard Petty, and holds our attention and interest even in his most despicable moments. As for Garner, she has a deceptively “easy” role, as the most sympathetic of this bunch, save for perhaps Leto’s troubled Rayon (a real scene-stealer who nearly upstages McConaughey at times). Other solid supporting turns come from the always-terrific Dunne, Steve Zahn (as a local cop) and Kevin Rankin (as Ron’s initial “enabler”). The sole one-note performances come from TV veterans O’Hare and Michael O’Neill, as the supposed “villains” of this piece.

Jeff Michael Vice can also be heard reviewing films, television programs, comics, books, music and other things as part of The Geek Show Podcast (, and can be seen reviewing films as part of Xfinity’s Big Movie Mouth-Off (