McConaughey notoriously shed 50 pounds to play real-life AIDS activist Ron Woodroof, but his newly-slight frame is more than strong enough to carry the picture. His Woodroof, a straight man who contracted AIDS in the early 1980s from sex with an intravenous drug user, is not a saint. In fact, he’s a homophobe, but he comes to find solidarity with the predominantly gay group of fellow Dallas AIDS patients who can’t get the cutting-edge medicines that could prolong their lives. Even more than solidarity, the movie implies, it’s Woodroof’s sheer cussedness that prompts him to start the club of the title, where AIDS patients can buy those drugs, which he smuggles from Mexico, actions that lead to bitter conflict against the medical establishment and the federal government.
Through it all, McConaughey is on fire, as if scourged and cleansed of all his old easygoing character tics he used to fall back on. All that’s left is his Texas swagger. It’s no wonder, then, that critics, audiences, and awards voters have been responding to the urgency of his performance.