Dallas Buyers ClubDirected by Jean-Marc Vallée

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto,

Jennifer Garner

Rated R

Playing at Lincoln Square, Village 7, Chelsea

"Dallas Buyers Club" is set at the height of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s, when the disease ravaged millions while federal agencies did little to effectively combat it.

It's based on the true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a homophobic Texas electrician who was stricken with the disease. In this world of death and decay, populated by run-down trailers and antiseptic hospitals, the grime practically seeps off the screen.

But in the face of these exceedingly tragic circumstances, director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriters Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack have crafted a character study filled with urgency and hope. It's the story of a man seizing control of his life, reconsidering his closely held prejudices and emerging at a better spiritual place despite his physical decline.

The movie chronicles Woodroof's establishing of a Dallas buyers' club, one of many nationwide that provided AIDS patients with antiviral drugs banned by the FDA but proven to be effective. He teams up with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman with AIDS, to fight the system. The movie trades in populist rage, which is always effective cinematic currency.

This is the best work of McConaughey's extraordinary midcareer transformation into a serious actor. The transition from hateful, self-absorbed Ron to determined man of the people occurs in subtle shades. The actor lost 40 pounds to play the part, but he really sells you with the ways the cracks in the character's tough exterior slowly start to show.

Leto's Rayon, a sweet and damaged soul, is the catalyst for Ron's transformation. It's one of the great disappearing-act performances of the year and it just might land Leto his first Oscar.

In the end, "Dallas Buyers Club" is set during the dawn of the AIDS crisis but the story it tells is universal: A man wakes up to where he's gone wrong and tries to fix things before his time runs out. It's about the ways we confront our mortality when it's shoved in our face. That's powerful stuff.