It takes a mighty actor to be able to portray a character as racist, as
homophobic, as disgusting and as vile as Ron Woodroof is in July 1985,
and, it takes an even mightier actor to have by the end you applaud and
dare I say fall in love with that same character. That mightier actor is
Matthew McConaughey and his performance here is probably his best
performance by far. He joins the hallowed ranks of actors like Matt
Damon, Donnie Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Michael Fassbender who have
all in recent years stripped themselves of any vanity and gone down in
weight until they were practically walking skeletons, all in service of
their roles. McConaughey certainly proves his dedication and through his
charm, which he could probably never lose, and especially through his
anger, he pulls us along like a hospital patient pulling along his
saline IV through a bucking bull ride of emotions that like the powerful
rodeo animal will certainly give you a hearty kick.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, an electrician in Texas whose adult life consisted of booze, cocaine and unprotected sex with as many women as possible. After he's hospitalized for a work accident, he's told that he has contracted HIV/AIDS and only has 30 days left to live.
It's 1985 and right now the only treatment is an experimental drug called AZT. Yet, the drug is still in its trial run. Nobody knows what its long-term affects are, so it's still a gamble. Most Americans diagnosed will die. There are other drugs and other regimens in other countries that have better results, but the FDA, the government organization that approves and legalizes food and pharmaceuticals, has not and perhaps due to corruption will not approve these other drugs.
Woodroof hears about these other drugs and decides to go to Mexico where he learns these drugs are free to be tried. At first, Woodroof is a dumb, bigoted redneck, but the illness, which is rotting him out, motivates him like no other can to educate himself and become as much an expert in HIV/AIDS treatment as any doctor. Literally like a mad scientist, Woodroof makes himself the guinea pig to figure out a treatment that will keep him alive and relatively strong.
Besides a guinea pig, Woodroof also makes himself a businessman. He might be ragingly homophobic, but, through a chance encounter with a transsexual named Rayon, played by Jared Leto, Woodroof sees that there is a huge client base in the LGBT community. As he deduces, AZT is not getting the job done and may in fact be making patients worse. Woodroof devises a plan to smuggle or sneak the other drugs from Mexico and additional foreign countries into Texas. He then figures out a legal loophole to sell those drugs to people. Woodroof wasn't the first to do this, but he got the ball rolling in Texas.
Of course, the FDA and the DEA do what they can to shut him down. The Dallas doctor who originally diagnosed Woodroof also tries to shut him down. The doctor's name is Dr. Sevard, and he is played very well by Denis O'Hare. Woodroof's only real defense is his determination and his fighting spirit, as well as his lowly lawyer David Wayne, played by the appropriately named Dallas Roberts who last year was in the applicable-to-here titled The Walking Dead.
Woodroof's ultimate defender is Dr. Eve Saks, played wondrously by Jennifer Garner (Alias and Juno). She's not given many lines of dialogue, but the few lines that she is given, she makes memorable. Director Jean-Marc Vallée does provide her a lot of non-verbal moments, which she absolutely nails. A moment she has with a hammer is very effective.
Vallée in general is good with quiet moments here. One trick he utilizes is turning down the soundtrack. Every time Woodroof has an attack from his illness that renders him unconscious or otherwise immobile, all sounds will go down until it's practically mute, aside from a subtle yet sharp ringing. Vallée makes this a motif and it's a perfect signal to put us right in the head of Woodroof.
Of course, McConaughey perfectly sells those moments, just as Woodroof perfectly sells his smuggled drugs. Yet, the true heartbreaking performance comes from Jared Leto (Urban Legend and Requiem for a Dream) who plays Rayon, the transsexual. Leto is never too flashy or over-the-top that he distracts. He superbly acts as a foil to McConaughey and complements the leading man's work as good as I've ever seen it done.
That being said, Leto has two scenes that he has to carry by himself. One is with Rayon's father, played by James DuMont, and, the other is with Rayon's boyfriend, played by Bradford Cox. Leto handles these scenes either so gracefully or so brutally that I would not be surprised if he won the Academy Award for this.
I also very much appreciated how Vallée gave us the fate of Leto's character in a way that again wasn't flashy or showy. In a quick edit to Garner's face and a simple, metaphorical shot, the falling of a makeup brush, Vallée conveys the fate of that character expeditiously, brilliantly, un-sentimentality and in a way that opened the stage for McConaughey proceeding into the film's last act.
Unfortunately, this movie might be more remembered than the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague (2012) and I share concerns by critics like Alonso Duralde who would rather have this story told from the point-of-view of a gay character and not a homophobic one like Woodroof, but I don't blame this movie for not telling that story. It was more than enough on its own and for me it is easily one of the best films of the year.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 57 mins.