1985 Dallas, sometime electrician, rodeo Hustler and ageing lothario Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is drinking, doing drugs and is less than choosy with his female sexual partners.
When he gets his electrical red/blue wires mixed up once too often, he lands in hospital where he receives a diagnosis, that puts all his previous worries into perspective.
Ron is HIV positive and is ill prepared to rationalise, understand or handle the news of his imminent demise, surely this is something “queers” get, as he succinctly summarises the situation.
As expected, his friends and employer act through ignorance and prejudice and marginalise him in ever cruel ways. To be fair this is 1985 when AIDS facts were in short supply and “cures” or “treatment” were still in their formative years.
Woodruff proceeds through the usual steps of grief, and eventual acceptance but refuses to give up despite numerous set backs. Finding that the prescribed drugs appear to do more harm than good, he takes a different approach to secure what he needs, which becomes the subject of the film.
If you have seen McConaughey in films/TV around this time, this is the film he lost all the weight for, looking ill, emaciated and as far from a movie star as might magine. This is taking suffering for your art to extreme levels, see also Christian Bale in the “Machinist”.
On his journey Woodroof receives professional and compassionate help from a local doctor (Jennifer Garner), who slowly realises the benefit of a more holistic approach to care. As important to Ron’s well being, is the initially highly improbable platonic friendship he builds with a local transsexual “Rayon” (Jared Leto), similarly affected by AIDS.
Both McConnaughey and Leto are superb, with Leto almost unrecognisable in his character, with both men fragile yet strong and deeply flawed in different ways. Ultimately as friends, despite their differences, they realise they are both worthy of compassion and understanding, perhaps the defining trait of the movie.
The two friends remain poles apart but manage to find common ground through their suffering with neither changing their perspective or outlook, a refreshing and realistic approach, deviating markedly from standard Hollywood fare.
Of course the authorities and drug companies do not emerge with much sympathy, whilst this could be considered a polemic point of view, anyone with even a passing knowledge of the subject would be unlikely to dispute the broad brush-strokes of the accusation.
Ultimately, was it better to let people die than allow them to take reasonable steps to help them prolong their lives? One would suspect those rich enough to do so, were quietly taking such steps behind the scenes, with no such legal interference and persecution portrayed here.
There are occasional snippets of gallows humour in the film, as Woodroof travels the world buying drugs/vitamins to provide the cocktail of hope to his customers. With “patients” helped as members of a club, thereby circumventing the laws of the time. But be warned, this is a tough watch overall, with much simulated drug use and extended feel-bad segments.
The film is clearly made on a tight budget and restricted shoot by director Jean-Marc Vallee but this adds to authenticity of the film and the period setting is conveyed well. Some of the points being made are hammered home and there is a feeling towards the conclusion of “enough already” but this is based on a true story and is duly treated with the respect it deserves.
A worthy, well made and superbly acted film, not to everyone’s taste. Arguably longer than necessary but makes for a rewarding, albeit difficult watch on occasions.