Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published March 13th 2014
From homophobe to hero
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee (C.R.A.Z.Y., Cafe de Flore, The Young Victoria) Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn
Getting the general public to see a film about the early days of the AIDS epidemic would seem a tough sell, but screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack have the good sense to come at it from an unexpected angle. By centring their story on the real-life experiences of Ron Woodroof, a womanising, conservative rodeo rider from Texas who contracted the HIV virus at the height of the homophobic hysteria surrounding its spread, they have created an entry point for a whole new audience.
An emaciated Matthew McConaughey as homophobe cum AIDS activist, Ron Woodroof
The year is 1985 and good old Ronny Woodroof is drinking all the whiskey, snorting all the coke and bedding all the women that he can lay his hands on. After a work accident lands him in hospital, a series of blood tests brings about the unimaginable revelation that he is HIV positive. Scarcely able to believe the news, Woodroof continues his life of recklessness, giving no heed to the warnings from doctors that he has little time left to live.
What really sets Woodroof apart though is what he does next. Once his health has deteriorated to the point he can no longer ignore the dire reality of his situation, he begins to research his options for treatment and quickly becomes disillusioned with what the government health services can provide him. He begins to source his own medicine, which involves the importation of illegal drugs from Mexico. Filled with righteousness, his war against the authorities escalates to the point where he is procuring and distributing drugs to fellow HIV patients.
What may sound like an exercise in morose navel gazing or hackneyed inspirational drama is thankfully free of the usual cliches or indulgence. A large part of this is due to Ron Woodroof himself, whose brazen disrespect for authority and no-holds-barred attitude towards life is so exhilarating to watch, despite his ill health. As portrayed by Matthew McConaughey, a fiery anger burning in his eyes can turn to a mischievous gleam in a blink. It is a mercurial performance, and not just because of the dramatic physical transformation he took on for the role, although that is indeed extraordinary. I felt sick just looking at his emaciated frame and his colourless features.
No less exceptional is Jared Leto as his unlikely accomplice in the drug trade, transsexual Rayon. Straight actors playing gay characters can be a dicey affair, but Leto gets the balance of camp and toughness just right. He's funny, brassy, honest and moving in an altogether effortless way. We all knew he'd look pretty in make-up, we just didn't know he had such deep reserves to draw upon as an actor.
Together the two of them are a fascinating combination of odd-couple comedy act, fearless crusading duo and a pair of doomed criminals on the run from the law. It's no wonder they're front-runners for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars.
Leto and McConaughey, an Oscar pairing in the making
In a much less showy role, Jennifer Garner is also excellent as the well-meaning doctor who's also frustrated by the bureaucracy and self-serving nature of pharmaceutical companies preventing real help from getting to patients.
So fear not that this is some maudlin, disease-of-the-week weepie or a dry historical account of the early fight against AIDS. While you may be educated by some of the facts presented, there is no shortage of humour to enjoy. This is the story of a man who made a difference, by cutting through the crap and getting to the heart of what counts. I'd say the filmmakers have followed his example and made a humdinger of a movie.
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