(out of 5)
Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a man who does not tread lightly on the pleasures of life. He works as an electrician but makes extra cash running bets (and outrunning angry betters) at the local rodeo. When he parties, the drinks and drugs flow freely and he indulges himself in all the loose womanhood he can get his hands (and anything else) on. He goes to the doctor after being electrocuted on the job and finds out that the reason that he hasn’t been feeling well and has lost so much weight recently is that he has full-blown AIDS. This is 1985, which means the prognosis is not good, but Woodroof has no intention of taking anything lying down. In fact, finger-in-the-air defiance is what we get for two glorious hours as he denies having the disease, because he’s not gay, then accepts this fact but decides not to die within 30 days as his doctor has told him to do, and then drops all his friends when they treat him like a pariah. After touch-and-go trials with experimental drugs, Woodroof decides that the FDA’s snail-crawl approval of AZT is not going to help anyone so he heads south of the border in search of other possibilities. Eventually he becomes a part of the “buyers club” phenomenon: AIDS patients around the country seek alternative answers by purchasing unapproved medicines (AZT is toxic in high dosages) sold by unlicensed retailers, who skirt federal laws by selling memberships (instead of charging for the actual medication), providing care for people with nowhere else to turn while managing a quite sizable profit for themselves. Woodroof keeps himself healthy and alive longer than expected while at the same time becoming quite the little kingpin. A friendship with a junkie transvestite (Jared Leto) also afflicted by the disease blossoms from unwilling business partners selling pills on the street to a deeper kinship as they become more successful and one pursues survival while the other descends into hopeless self-destruction. Jean-Marc Vallee’s biopic of the kind of character that only real life provides could easily have fallen into liberal-guilt melodrama, but it is exciting and heartbreaking because of what good service it pays to such an incredible story: Woodroof’s politically incorrect opinions of the people around him are not dampened down by a desire to make audiences comfortable, this guy has a nasty mouth and he is never afraid to let it run wild (I know we’re supposed to label him ‘homophobic’ but that implies that he is at odds with the society around him: for a Texan male in the mid-eighties he’s pretty much par for the course, and there are other things that make him special). Nor does Vallee play soft on the irony of a man whose increasing compassion for humanity is in direct relation to his steely willingness to profit from other people’s misfortunes. Woodroof won’t let you buy into the club for less than the asking price no matter how sick you are, and a girl with the disease who shows up to join the club becomes an opportunity for him to release his sexual energies without worrying about the moral consequences. Carrying it all the way to home plate is a cast who all provide career-topping performances, with McConaughey’s good-ole-boy charisma put beautifully into the service of this Pied Piper who defies the law, takes his new friend under his wing and captures the heart of a doctor (Jennifer Garner) who is inspired to do all she can to help his cause. Both he and Leto have undergone alarming physical transformations for their roles, gaunt and sickly looking and likely to earn more notices for weight loss than for the smooth calibrations of character development that they perfectly calculate from one scene to the next. Garner has never been more compelling, thoroughly convincing as a doctor who feels sympathy for what she sees happening around her but is fully committed to maintaining her professional reserve. What this film does best, however, is tell its story without any unnecessary editorializing: there is just enough information about every step of the process without Vallee assuming we need anything explained, right down to the way the characters’ relationships develop and grow by subtle turns and more than a few touching developments of intimacy.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Cinematography by Yves Belanger
Production Design by John Paino
Costume Design by Kurt and Bart
Film Editing by Martin Pensa, Jean-Marc Vallee