Dallas Buyers Club is the absolutely perfect conclusion to the massive, damn near unprecedented career rejuvenation that Matthew McConaughey has been undergoing since Bernie premiered: having over the course of six films, now, totally reinvented himself as an ambitious, layered, flexible vessel for interesting auteurs to mold in interesting ways, the actor now has a movie gift wrapped and presented to him as a full-on Exploration of McConaughey's Star Persona, in Dramatic, Oscar-Friendly Form. As much as it is about one man's attempt to fight the seemingly inevitable specter of death by AIDS in the 1980s, it is also about who McConaughey is, who he has been, and how far one can push the "McConaughey Character" until he snaps. And it is, in this regard, absolutely terrific - I won't say it's the best performance of his career renaissance (the sexually fetid Dallas of Magic Mike still refuses to concede that title), but if this is the one that starts to rack up trophies, I can't pretend that I'll feel like it's an injustice being done, either.

The unfortunate side effect of being such a terrific elucidation and demonstration of the stardom of Matthew McConaughey is that the film doesn't have much room left over to be anything else. It's particularly, and conspicuously, not a very smart or sensitive study of the AIDS crisis in the '80s. It is, at least, very tasteful; tasteful to the point of dysfunction. Tasteful as you would expect of a film directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, whose last English-language film was The Young Victoria, which couldn't have been any more pointedly inoffensive without ceasing to function as narrative art. To be fair, if Dallas Buyers Club fails to be as heavingly anodyne as that movie, it's not least because Vallée makes a concerted effort to keep away from the broader sort of sentimentality that might easily turn this scenario into something precious and hammily tragic. It's stripped-down and wiry, Dallas Buyers Club is, employing a spare realism that has no room for tearjerking emotional appeals. And for not indulging in the most obvious and cloying read of Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack's screenplay, the director deserves our thanks, though it's only a partial victory; it's not like the film actively does anything of particular aesthetic interest.

Anyway, when you have to count a director's ability to avoid sinking to the level of his script as one of the film's positive elements, you have on your hands a movie that is not really very interesting, to say the least. And lo! Dallas Buyers Club isn't very interesting in and of itself, though the underlying story is compelling enough - especially as it's based in truth - that it would take more than Borton & Wallack's rattletrap script to completely ruin it. The story centers on Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a sometime rodeo cowboy, gambler, and if not quite a "con man", someone whose actions don't discourage one from making that kind of association. The very first thing we see him doing is having unprotected sex while watching a bull throw a rider; it is not, we are clearly meant to understand, the first time this kind of thing has happened, and in the next few days, he's prone to unusual bouts of physical weakness. When he ends up in the hospital, unconscious, a blood test is performed, and he walks to find Drs. Saks (Jennifer Garner) and Sevard (Denis O'Hare) watching over him with bad news: he is HIV positive, and a life of drug-fueled living has left his system so ragged that the disease is likely to kill him within the month.

This being 1985, the notion of HIV and AIDS as a problem for straight men remains difficult to grasp, and the hyper-masculine Texan culture that Woodroof has thrived in since the beginning of time turns on him in his moment of need. But not nearly as much as the medical industry does: the hospital where he's being treated happens to be the site of a blind study on a new drug, with the pharmaceutical reps responsible for driving the experiments having a visible disinterest in thinking of the patients as anything but data points. The experimental medicine is the next worst thing to poison, and Woodroof manages nothing better than to swap immediately dying of AIDS for immediately dying of noxious chemotherapy. Along the way, though, he makes connections with several other patients, chief among them the transgender woman Rayon (Jared Leto); he also picks up the idea of "buyers clubs", groups of AIDS patients throughout the country banding together to import drugs from other countries that have some indication of helping to treat the disease, while lacking the approval of the FDA. Seeing dollar signs, Woodroof immediately takes the initiative to form a club of his own, with Rayon helping to organise and act as liaison to the queer community that even now, Woodroof has a difficult time relating to on any level.

There's a whole nest of little problems here, but the big one is that, while Woodroof's story was undeniably interesting, it wasn't inherently dramatic, and the filmmakers' attempt to impose a conventional "inspirational drama" framework on the material doesn't work very well. It's a captivating, slow-burn character study right up until Woodroof and Rayon have their business up and running, at which point it gets caught in too many repetitive scenes of Woodroof sparring with The Proper Authorities, while advancing a cautiously apolitical solution to The Problem (because yes, please, a movie about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s needs to be cautious about its politics), managing to be vague enough that it's blaming the government from both left- and right-wing vantage points, at the same time. The final act, meanwhile, is a loopy disaster, springboarding from ginned up tragedy to a weirdly unearned triumphant climax.

It's a perspective thing, though. Look at it as a story, or as a study of a moment in the history of AIDS, and it's a weak-kneed mess - particularly with Rayon standing in for the entire LGBT experience of the 1980s, but also serving as meat puppet in Woodroof's story, and not even Leto's game chameleonisn can make an actual personality of the role. But the film isn't really asking to be looked at that way. It is an exhaustive exploration of Ron Woodroof and Matthew McConaughey's performance of the same, and in this regard, it's a masterpiece. All the McConaughey traits are there: the flirty drawl, the alpha-male charisma, the wheedling way that anytime he strings two sentences together, you can tell he's trying to sell you a bridge; Dallas Buyers Club, far more than it is a story about AIDS in the '80s, is about what happens when you take all of those things that define this actor, and break them. The actor's aggressive, dominating sexuality turns into something sad and tragic when it is first linked to a fatal disease and then taken away from him by that same disease; the grin and the charisma are very different radiating from a dessicated face with bruises on it. McConaughey is in outstanding form in every frame, in a movie where he very rarely fails to appear onscreen, and the way the film allows him to both challenge and affirm his persona in a hugely exciting that puts a grand punctuation mark on this thrilling career reinvention he's been going through.

This does, after a fashion, leave Dallas Buyers Club feeling a bit mechanical and conceptual - unlike Steven Soderbergh's many games in tweaking star personae (Magic Mike is a key example, though the film mostly calls to mind Erin Brockovich), it doesn't really thrive as an entertaining, involving movie beyond that leading role, and its worst parts are all bunched up at the end, which makes it hard to feel great about it on the way out. But the sheer electric force of McConaughey's performance puts it over and then some; it's not essential cinema by any stretch, but it's terrifically watchable for such sober-minded awards bait, the best example of an honest-to-God star vehicle in many years.